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Mbeki's HIV Skepticism Sparks Anger, Denial


SOWETO, South Africa (Reuters) - President Thabo Mbeki's skepticism over the link between HIV and AIDS is causing anger and confusion among South Africans and making overworked health counsellors' jobs even tougher, activists say.

"I don't believe HIV causes AIDS. I don't believe AIDS exists. Mr. Mbeki told us," says Elizabeth, who is pregnant and HIV-positive, as she waits at a clinic at Soweto township's Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital.

Elizabeth has been following the intense public debate about Mbeki's repeated questioning of Western views about AIDS and its cause and has chosen to interpret the president's complex statements as evidence that she need not fear AIDS.

Florence Ngobeni, a counsellor at the hospital's perinatal HIV research unit, despairs.

"I have to find ways to convince her that HIV exists and that it does cause AIDS. I hate it," Ngobeni told Reuters.

"My job got harder when the government began questioning the link between HIV and AIDS. The truth is that HIV really does cause AIDS and it makes it difficult when I'm counselling people like that. I feel exhausted," she sighs.

Ngobeni has spent the morning counselling 35 pregnant HIV-positive women as they wait to see a medical examiner. The discussion is heated and littered with Mbeki's name.

"We're reading these things and getting more confused," says Constance, one of the women attending the clinic. None of the pregnant women wanted to be identified or photographed.

Mbeki has challenged the dominant medical view linking human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). He says he needs fresh proof to be convinced and has appointed an international panel to produce it.

Scientists, doctors and the country's biggest labor union have condemned Mbeki for undermining an already difficult campaign to promote safe sex.

Mbeki's outspoken views have badly dented his credibility in Western capitals. Some British newspapers have carried reports questioning his ability to govern.

Mbeki's Doubts Seen As Truths

Although Mbeki does not deny that HIV causes AIDS, many South Africans have perceived his skepticism as the truth.

"Although he may not intend it, the message that has come out is that he doesn't believe that HIV causes AIDS," Morna Cornell, director of the AIDS Consortium, which groups AIDS activist groups in South Africa, told Reuters.

"It has been very damaging, it has caused confusion and it is undermining the AIDS prevention program."

Ngobeni paces the small waiting room as she asks the women: "Do you think Mbeki is right or wrong?"

"Mbeki is wrong," most of the women shout angrily.

Elizabeth is quiet and looks confused, but then this is her first visit to the clinic.

"Mbeki sits in his comfortable house and he doesn't see us, the people on the ground," rages Elsie, a heavily pregnant 30-year-old. "We're not going to vote for him anymore."

Another woman challenges the president: "He must come down and see us in this clinic, to see how many of us women are HIV positive."

Constance worries that the government's stance means she will no longer have access to treatment and that the increased stress will speed up the onset of full AIDS.

"We feel devastated by the president's statement," she says.

Domestic Violence Increases

Ngobeni is relieved that she and fellow counsellors have finally convinced most of the women of the link between HIV and AIDS and that breastfeeding their babies will pass on the virus.

What worries her now are the women's partners, who have seized Mbeki's message as permission not to use condoms or seek treatment.

"My husband doesn't want to see a condom because of Mbeki," said one woman. Counsellors at the clinic have also noticed an increase in domestic violence, as husbands exert their authority when their wives try to insist they use condoms and receive treatment for the deadly virus.

"Less people are coming to see us," complains Gloria, a counsellor at an AIDS clinic elsewhere in Soweto. "Since Mbeki's statement it has become so difficult for us to talk to the community, especially men. They no longer believe us that HIV causes AIDS."

South Africa has one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS on the continent, with 10 percent of its population of 43 million afflicted by the disease. "The money that the government has allocated for AIDS awareness is a waste, because that (Mbeki's) statement is the core issue. The money is like putting icing on an unbaked cake," says Ngobeni.

"But even if Mbeki admits now that HIV causes AIDS he has a long way to go. Before any program starts he has to be the first person to say 'yes, we've made some mistakes but we've learned the hard way that HIV causes AIDS'," she said.


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Information in this article was accurate in October 7, 2000. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.