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South African AIDS Report Stirs Controversy - 2001-10-17

South Africa's Medical Research Council is standing by a report it issued this week on the number of AIDS-related deaths in the country, despite criticism of its research methods by other government agencies. Health workers are urging the government to act on the predictions, instead of questioning them.

The government-funded Medical Research Council suggests in its report that 40 percent of adult deaths last year in South Africa were caused by AIDS-related illnesses.

The government's statistical agency, Statistics South Africa, has questioned the methods used by the research council, and therefore the accuracy of the Medical Research Council predictions. In recent statements, President Thabo Mbeki has said the number of HIV infections in South Africa is exaggerated.

But the Medical Research Council findings are no surprise to health workers dealing with AIDS at the grassroots level in South Africa.

Mercedes Sayagues is a spokeswoman for the aid group Oxfam. She says she recently visited a maternity clinic outside Cape Town where one-third of the patients are HIV positive. She says Oxfam projects in other regions show similar increases in AIDS cases.

"The statistics do not surprise us. They fit in with what we see on the ground. ... What we are seeing in our project in Kwazulu-Natal [province] is that AIDS affects more and more households, and it fills up more and more hospital beds," she said.

Ms. Sayagues says it is important for the government to have accurate statistics on the epidemic. "If any government acknowledges the extent of the epidemic, then you can start planning for it. And if you want to plan the economics and social future of South Africa, the fact of AIDS cannot, and should not be ignored, because it affects the planning of every sector of the economy and society," she said.

Ms. Sayagues says the quarrel over the accuracy of the MRC data is distracting from questions that might in the end be more important. "What is undeniable is the extent of the epidemic, and how it is affecting the fabric of society, how it is affecting households, how it is leaving a trail of orphans. And ... there is an urgent need to address the needs of the people who are living with HIV, and who are dying of AIDS today, and how this could be prevented.

Health workers and the Medical Research Council are urging the government to act on the new findings. They want clear policy decisions on both prevention and treatment - to help stem the spread of the epidemic, as well as prolong the lives of people living with HIV.