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Reuters New Media
S. African Opposition Says Government Fears Drug Firms
Jeremy Lovell
October 27, 2000
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 citizens.

"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.

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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.



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