Mbeki To Scale Down AIDS Debate

Tuesday, October 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) — After months of withering criticism over his AIDS policies, President Thabo Mbeki has decided to scale down his involvement in South Africa's AIDS debate.

The decision comes amid several recent government initiatives to increase the intensity of South Africa's fight against the disease.

``He's scaling down his direct involvement in the public debate on the science of HIV/AIDS,'' government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

South Africa's roughly 4.2 million HIV-positive people make it the country with the largest number of HIV infections in the world. Nearly 10 percent of the population is infected.

Mbeki has come under strong criticism for casting doubt on the link between HIV and AIDS. In May, he convened an AIDS advisory panel, which included mainstream scientists alongside fringe theorists who doubt the existence of the disease or believe it is caused by illegal drugs and AIDS medications.

The advisory panel is expected to present a final report by year's end.

The government also has refused to provide anti-retroviral drugs to infected pregnant women that would help prevent transmission of the disease to their babies.

AIDS activists have complained that Mbeki has badly damaged AIDS awareness campaigns, perplexing people and giving many an excuse not to practice safe sex.

Mbeki told Parliament last month that his government's actions may have contributed to national confusion about AIDS.

``The way we have handled this matter, might have resulted in this confusion,'' he said.

Since those comments, the government has launched a $275,000 safe-sex advertising campaign to clarify its position that safe sex and abstinence are important weapons in fighting the spread of the disease. It has also agreed to expand testing of the anti-AIDS medication Nevirapine.

Mbeki is not backing away from the AIDS issue, Netshitenzhe said. He is simply trying to balance it out with economic issues, international issues and other problems.

``It takes up too much of his time,'' Netshitenzhe said of AIDS.

As part of Mbeki's scaled-down involvement, he has appointed three Cabinet ministers to deal with the advisory board in his stead, Netshitenzhe said.

Mbeki's decision drew renewed criticism from one of South Africa's leading AIDS activist groups.

``He cannot now sort of renege on his responsibility as a leader,'' said Sharon Ekambaram, spokeswoman for the Treatment Action Campaign. ``To act childishly now and withdraw from any comment is even worse. It is confusing.''

She added: ``We just want direction on how to deal with this (pandemic) and clear policy and implementation.''