AIDS now SA's top killer - report

by Laurice Taitz

New findings contradict President Mbeki's denial that the epidemic is the leading cause of deaths in this country

AIDS is now the single biggest killer of South Africans and will have taken the lives of about six million people by 2010.

A groundbreaking SA Medical Research Council report estimates that the deaths of 40% of all South Africans aged 15 to 49 last year were because of AIDS.

The July report, titled The Impact of HIV/AIDS on adult mortality in South Africa, contradicts President Thabo Mbeki's denial of AIDS being SA's leading killer.

Based on data from the Health Department's annual antenatal survey and the Actuarial Society of SA's AIDS model, the report documents rapid changes in SA's mortality data, with an increasing trend in the deaths of young adults since 1997, interpreted to be mostly caused by AIDS.

The report projects that by 2010, if there has been no effective intervention: 
  • There will be a threefold increase in deaths among children aged between one and five;
  • The number of AIDS deaths is expected to rise to double the number of deaths attributed to all other causes; and
  • Population growth will be halted by the epidemic.

The report, which has not officially been released, but which the Sunday Times has a copy of, has already been seen by top government officials.

There seems to be confusion in government circles about the status of the report. On Thursday, Minister of Health Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told a press briefing in Parliament that the researchers had worked alone outside the collective which had been established, something which worries us. This is despite an earlier statement released on Monday by the Department of Health, with the minister's name on it, that said the report was part of a broader process which had emanated from a recommendation by the Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel to compile current AIDS mortality figures.

This week it was also reported that in a letter to Tshabalala-Msimang, Mbeki had questioned government spending on AIDS based on 1995 mortality data he had found on the World Health Organisation website.

On the basis of 1995 figures Mbeki called for a re-examination of South Africa's spending priorities when it comes to social policy, warning Tshabalala-Msimang that this move would 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.

Writing in the preface to the report, council President Dr Malegapuru William Makgoba, says that the denial of AIDS was predictably the first African public response to the epidemic.

He writes that in 1982, when the first cases of what was to become known as HIV/AIDS among homosexual men were discussed, the seeds of denial to justify why AIDS would not be prevalent in African communities were first sown.

When AIDS was first wrongly linked to homosexual practice many Africans promoted the notion that homosexual practices were 'unAfrican'."

He writes that even at that time he believed that the syndrome was more common than people believed in Africa.

Bheki Khumalo, spokesman for the President, declined to comment on issues of statistics or on why President Mbeki had not spoken to local researchers about South Africa's mortality data.

Source: Sunday Times: 16 September 2001