Political commitment is key to the success of HIV programmes and African leaders have been at the forefront of the fight against HIV on the continent, but politicians also have the power to harm HIV/AIDS campaigns.
Uganda’s recently appointed health minister, Christine Ondoa, has been berated by AIDS activists for comments she allegedly made in an interview with a local newspaper on 1 August. According to The Observer, Ondoa claimed to know three people who had been cured of HIV through prayer.
“I am sure and I have evidence that someone who was [HIV] positive turned negative after prayers,” she said.
Activists described her comments as “careless and misleading”. Ondoa joins a long list of African leaders who have been criticized for comments deemed detrimental to the fight against HIV; here are some of the more controversial statements made by politicians:
Thabo Mbeki – In 1999, the then South African president said the ARV zidovudine – also known as AZT – had toxic side-effects and was dangerous to health, and as such, the government would not provide it free of charge to HIV-positive pregnant women.
Mbeki stirred controversy when he questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS; in 2000 he set up a Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel, largely comprising AIDS denialists, to discuss how South Africa should deal with the crisis.
Mbeki also evoked conspiracy theories by alleging that the US Central Intelligence Agency, working with large pharmaceutical companies, was part of a conspiracy to promote the view that HIV caused AIDS.
In 2001, the NGO Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) filed a lawsuit against the government aimed at giving HIV-positive pregnant women access to the ARV, nevirapine, used to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child. TAC won the case, and the government was forced to provide the drug through the public health system.
According to the authors of a 2008 Harvard study, more than 330,000 lives were lost as a result of the delays in implementing a feasible and timely ARV treatment programme in South Africa.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang – South Africa’s health minister from 1999 to 2008 under Mbeki, her years in office were characterized by controversy, largely due to her reluctance to develop public sector policies involving the use of ARVs to fight AIDS.
Even after ARVs became available, Tshabalala-Msimang continued to cast doubt on their safety and efficacy, actively endorsing alternative therapists who promoted scientifically untested alternatives to ARVs.
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