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