CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's opposition Democratic
Party on Friday accused the government of
allowing a pathological fear of the major drug companies to
determine its entire policy on the HIV/AIDS
epidemic sweeping the country.
"I can only assume that the whole government's policy is driven
by an anti-pharmaceutical company attitude which is governing
all its actions," party leader Tony Leon told a news conference
on return from a visit to drug firms in Europe.
The ruling African National Congress
government has ruled out providing antiretroviral drugs to
HIV-infected pregnant women or rape survivors to prevent
transmission in a country with the highest incidence of the
killer disease in the world.
Earlier this week an ANC spokesman accused the Democratic Party
of resorting to apartheid era biological warfare tactics by
providing the antiretroviral drug AZT to pregnant women in the
black township of Khayelitsha in the Western Cape Province.
The Democratic Party in alliance with the New National Party
control the province and has promised to extend the scheme in
the Cape and any other provinces where they may gain control
from the ANC in local elections set for December 5.
Leon rejected the ANC accusation, saying the government was
digging its own grave and those of thousands of South African
"These drugs...described by the ANC as poison, have been in the
public health domain for 15 years," he said. "The government
has dug itself into a hole on the whole antiretroviral issue.
It is a mistake with tragic consequences. People are dying."
Leon said the United Nations world AIDS
program, UNAIDS, had calculated that 19.9% of adult South
Africans were living with HIV/AIDS and quarter of a million
people had already died as a result.
IMAGE DENTED BY CONTROVERSY
Insurance industry figures put the HIV infection rate at over
2,000 a day, and estimate that life expectancy in South Africa
would fall to 41 years by 2010 from the current 63 years.
South Africa's international standing and the popularity at
home of President Thabo Mbeki has dwindled as a result of the
whole HIV/AIDS dispute triggered by Mbeki himself last year
when he questioned the link between the two.
In an exchange of letters earlier this year Mbeki accused Leon
of racism, living on another planet and lining his own pockets
through his insistence that HIV did cause AIDS and that
transmission could be prevented through drugs. Mbeki said there
was no proof that antiretroviral drugs prevented transmission
of HIV, and said there was evidence that the toxicity of the
drugs made them too dangerous to use in pregnant women.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has argued that the
drugs were too expensive and there had been no substantive
offer from the manufacturers to discount the prices.
However, Leon said on Friday he knew of at least two firm
offers involving significant discounts and that as the national
government did not appear to be interested the administration
of the Western Cape would open its own talks.
"We should be exploiting these offers where feasible," he said,
noting what he described as a starting offer of an 85% discount
on a combination treatment known as Combivir involving the
drugs AZT and 3TC. "It is not sensible to be in a state of war
with the pharmaceutical industry," he added.