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South African Press Association
Aids campaigners 'misunderstood' Mbeki

February 12, 2004
The Treatment Action Campaign's (TAC) condemnation of President Thabo Mbeki's stance on HIV/Aids death figures stemmed from a misunderstanding, the government said on Thursday.

"They seem to have misunderstood what the president was saying," said government spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe.

The TAC claimed on Wednesday that Mbeki had "misrepresented facts and once again caused confusion on HIV/Aids" when he spoke on SABC television on Sunday.

It disagreed in particular with Mbeki's statement that Aids death statistics were not available, and that South Africa's HIV/Aids programme was among the best in the world.

Netshitenzhe said the president had been referring to all deaths in South Africa -- not only Aids deaths -- when he said statistics were not available. He said Mbeki was not trying to underplay the importance of Aids, but felt it was necessary to have a full picture of the causes of mortality in the country.

The TAC had given figures showing that several developing countries treated more people for Aids than South Africa did.

"We need to get rid of the notion that dealing with Aids is only about anti-retrovirals," said Netshitenzhe. He quoted several United Nations sources who had praised South Africa's comprehensive programme.

Presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo said it was counterproductive to haggle over such details.

"We have made a call, the HIV/Aids programme is there, and the government is moving ahead. The challenge for all South Africans is for us to work together to ensure the realisation of this program."

The TAC said it wanted to work together with the government, and welcomed the efforts being made by several provincial health departments.

On Wednesday TAC treasurer Mark Heywood said the organisation would monitor the roll-out of the Department of Health's anti-retroviral programme, and would publish a report on this on March 21. If it was felt to be necessary, it would take urgent legal action.

Heywood also demanded that the Health Department treat the situation as an emergency, and buy and distribute emergency supplies of the drugs while the process of drug sourcing and capacity-building takes place.

"Many hospitals have the capacity, they just don't have the medicines," he said.

The TAC has sent a letter to the head of drug procurement at the Health Department, Humphrey Zokufa, asking for more details of the procurement process and "immediate and urgent access to a supply of anti-retroviral drugs to cater for interim needs".

On Friday the Health Department will advertise for an "expression of interest" from potential suppliers of anti-retrovirals, said Zokufa.

He admitted receiving a letter from the TAC, but did not want to comment.

The TAC's main criticism is that the Health Department shows no sense of urgency while people are dying daily, but Netshitenzhe said the Cabinet was satisfied with the progress of the HIV/Aids programme.

"Doing things in a piecemeal fashion would be disastrous for the country. There are a number of things that need to be done to ensure that we have a sustainable programme."