afrol News, 26 February - "HIV causes AIDS" might not be a controversial statement normally, but when KwaZulu-Natal Premier Lionel Mtshali stated this yesterday, it was directly addressed at South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki's policies on HIV/AIDS are thoroughly influenced by his doubt on this connection. "In this Province," the KwaZulu-Natal Premier stated, "this axiom of science is not open to bizarre personal theories with any relation to reality."
Mtshali yesterday opened the legislature of the Province of KwaZulu-Natal and outlined his provincial government's main targets for 2002. "The bottom-line of my State of the Province Address is my government's commitment to fight against HIV/AIDS and poverty," the Premier summed up.
He dedicated one half of his lengthy speech to the AIDS pandemic and the drastic policy changed to be introduced in the province. KwaZulu-Natal is pinpointed as the nucleus of the disease in South Africa and up to 35% of the population is HIV positive. The province had an estimated 80 000 HIV/AIDS related deaths in 2001. In 2001, about 40,000 of the province's children were infected with HIV by their mothers and it is estimated that possibly 36% but as much as 40% of the women in KwaZulu-Natal giving birth are HIV positive.
The medical treatment of pregnant HIV positive women is the big issue of conflict between the South African government and several provinces. Given the fact that the anti-retroviral drug Nevirapine can prevent up to 60 percent of the mother-to-child HIV transmissions and that Nevirapine is a cheap drug, often even delivered free of charges by its producer Boehringer-Ingelheim, the refusal by Mbeki's government to distribute it freely is heavily protested. While Nevirapine is thoroughly tested and approved, Pretoria maintains it wants to test the "toxic medicine" on its own in a time-consuming process.
Mtshali will wait no more, he announced yesterday. "We had to act, and may God forgive us for waiting so long. We shall not wait one day longer, nor allow any space for any further excuse, delaying tactic or preposterous theory which may get in the way of saving our children," he said in an emotional speech, saturated with scientific and religious argumentation.
The Premier and his Inkatha party had been involved in months of studies, trying to get to the bottom of the refusal of Mbeki's and its local Health Department's refusal to distribute the drug freely. After listening to all the arguments, he still failed "to understand why the Province should refuse" receiving a donation of Nevirapine from Boehringer-Ingelheim and distribute it freely.
- This is not a matter of politics, Mtshali said. "I am a father and a grandfather. I am a God-fearing man. For me, this is a matter of principle and common decency. I have turned upside-down the scientific facts to find a reason which can justify the failure to act and ameliorate the suffering and reduce the death of so many of our children, I have found none."
His government had therefore decided accept the offer from Boehringer-Ingelheim and to immediately start the free distribution of Nevirapine throughout the province. "I will not have another 20,000 HIV positive children, who could have been saved, on my conscience in 2002," Mtshali said.
Earlier statements by Inkatha party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, also South African Minister of Home Affairs, Nevirapine would be distributed to all pregnant women of KwaZulu-Natal, HIV positive or not, were plaid down by Mtshali. Buthelezi had said the province's poor infrastructure did not allow for testing and counselling for all women yet. Mtshali however confirmed his government was considering this option in areas of poor health infrastructure.
Premier Mtshali was unmistakably clear on what he held of the "unfounded" AIDS drug policies of the South African government. "Certainly, history will judge us harshly," Mtshali said. The Premier said, now he had "a clear conscience," but only could hope "that when one day I stand before Him on judgement day, God Almighty may forgive me for not having acted sooner to save His children from the HIV/AIDS scourge."
KwaZulu-Natal is one of three provinces that has officially broken with the South African policy on AIDS drugs. Western Cape, also dominated by the opposition, freely receives Nevirapine from Boehringer-Ingelheim and is to distribute outside the government's few "pilot sites". Gauteng, as the first province ruled by the ANC (Mbeki's party), last week also announced it would start distributing Nevirapine freely to all HIV positive pregnant women.