More than 330,000 lives were lost to HIV/Aids in South Africa between 2000 and 2005 because a “feasible and timely” antiretroviral (ARV) treatment program was not implemented, damning research findings from the Harvard School of Public Health claim. In research published online in October by the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS), the Harvard researchers also say that an estimated 35,000 babies were born with HIV during the same period because of delays in implementing a mother-to-child program using the anti-aids drug nevirapine.
Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) policy researcher Andrew Warlick said the research showed the “genocidal human toll wreaked by the policies of the previous administration”.
He said while the research confirmed what Aids activists had suspected, as far as he was aware the Harvard study was the “first of its kind published in a major peer-reviewed health journal that looks specifically at the lives lost because of politics”.
The research comes following a call for Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) style hearings into the handling of South Africa’s HIV/Aids crisis.
Speaking at an Institute for Justice and Reconciliation conference on the legacy of the TRC on Wednesday, Fatima Hassan, a lawyer at the Aids Law Project, suggested the hearings because of the need to look at the way in which the government had failed the people of South Africa with regards the HIV/Aids pandemic.
Both former president Thabo Mbeki and former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have been heavily criticised by Aids activists for denialism around the causes of HIV/Aids and for spreading confusion about the pandemic.
The Harvard research team note that under Mbeki, the government restricted use of donated nevirapine and blocked funds for more than a year from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Detailing how a national program for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission was launched in August 2003 and a national ARV treatment program in 2004, they said by 2005 there was 23% ARV treatment coverage and less than 30% prevention of mother-to-child transmission coverage in South Africa.
By comparison, they state, neighbouring Botswana began prevention of mother-to-child transmission in 1999 and a national ARV treatment program in 2001. The authors estimated there was 85% ARV treatment coverage in Botswana and 71% in Namibia by 2005.
Led by Dr. Pride Chigwedere from Zimbabwe, the authors then compared South Africa with Botswana and Namibia to come up with an estimate of lives lost because of “government policies restricting or delaying the use of ARV treatment”.
The authors concluded: “Access to appropriate public health practice is often determined by a small number of political leaders. In the case of South Africa, many lives were lost because of a failure to accept the use of available ARVs to prevent and treat HIV/Aids in a timely manner.”
Contacted for comment about the call for TRC-style hearings, Mbeki’s spokesperson, Mukoni Ratshitanga, said the call related to government and not Mbeki specifically. Asked whether government policy on HIV/Aids had not been closely linked with Mbeki’s questioning of the causes of the pandemic, Ratshitanga maintained that policies were of the South African government and not Mbeki.
Health department spokesperson Fidel Hadebe, commenting on the call for a TRC, said people who wanted public hearings or investigations should approach the relevant stakeholders with their proposals.
He said he was familiar with the Harvard research, but that health department officials would have to look into the findings before a position was adopted.
* Reporting by Patrick Burnett.