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More Controversy Surrounding Mbeki's Stand on AIDS - 2001-09-11

South African President Thabo Mbeki is once again in the midst of an AIDS controversy, this time because he is using 1995 data to question current AIDS mortality rates in South Africa. Some South Africans are asking if HIV/AIDS has become Mr. Mbeki's blind spot.

President Thabo Mbeki has instructed his health minister to lead a re-examination of South Africa's social spending priorities in light of the World Health Organization statistics on causes of death in 1995.

Mr. Mbeki ordered the re-examination in a letter he sent to Health Minister Manto Tshabala-Msimang in August. The letter was leaked to the Business Day newspaper.

The president warned the WHO figures would, in his words, "provoke a howl of displeasure and a concerted propaganda campaign from those who have convinced themselves that HIV/AIDS is the single biggest cause of death" in South Africa.

The WHO report covers the five-year period ending in 1995 and indicates the annual death rate from AIDS was just 2.2 percent - far below the number of deaths resulting from external causes such as violence and cardiovascular conditions. These figures reflect Mr. Mbeki's own views that AIDS is not a major cause of death in South Africa.

While the figures are the most current officially available, they are already superseded by a recently completed report from this country's Medical Research Council, which will soon be presented to the cabinet. The medical council's report is expected to confirm the widespread belief in the country that AIDS has indeed outstripped all other causes of death in South Africa.

Mr. Mbeki's letter, as he predicted, has been denounced by opposition parties and AIDS activists, many of whom say Mr. Mbeki is in denial about HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

The latest controversy comes just as Mr. Mbeki seemed to have recovered from a storm he caused last year when he questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS.

The influential Business Day newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday that it is astounding that Mr. Mbeki appears still to be so out of touch with his fellow citizens who witness the toll of AIDS on their families, friends and on the economy.

Business Day describes Mr. Mbeki as a highly trained intellectual and a proud and determined man who is not easily persuaded to follow conventional wisdom with which he disagrees. Business Day says the South African President needs to rethink his position on HIV/AIDS. It is an issue, the editorial says, that threatens his life's work.