State of emergency won’t help victims Many urge South African leader to allow access to cheaper HIV drugs

The Associated Press
Wednesday March 14, 2001

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Opposition leaders said they would urge the president to invoke a state of emergency to give South Africans with HIV access to cheaper generic drugs. 

That won’t happen, the country’s health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, said Tuesday. Invoking a state of emergency won’t solve the dilemma, she said. 

“The issue of affordable medicines cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional debate on declaring a national emergency to secure anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS management,” she said. 

The intensity of the debate over declaring a state of emergency has shown how divided South Africa – with 10 percent of its 45 million citizens infected with HIV – remains on the AIDS issue.  

By 2010, the average life expectancy rate in South Africa is expected to drop to 36 because of the epidemic. 

A South African law allows the import of cheap, generic medications in the case of a national emergency.  

But it has never been put into force because of a lawsuit filed by many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. That court challenge has been postponed to April 18. 

Tony Leon, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said he planned to ask during a parliamentary session Wednesday that President Thabo Mbeki to declare a state of emergency. 

The act, which would give the president wide-ranging powers to create new regulations, is not perfect for the AIDS crisis, his spokesman, Anthony Hazell, acknowledged Tuesday. Instead of battling the pharmaceutical firms in court, South Africa should look into narrowing the law to suit the drug firms better, he said. 

“It’s not ideal, because it’s too broad, but it’s all we have at the moment,” he said. 

But at the very least, calling for action would widen debate over how South Africans can gain access to cheaper AIDS drugs, he said. 

Declaring the epidemic a national emergency could prove counterproductive because it would infringe on South Africans’ rights and surround AIDS policy with cumbersome legal requirements, said Zachie Achmat, chairman of the Treatment Action Campaign, which has joined the government in  

the lawsuit. 

Achmat dismissed the opposition group’s move as a political ploy. “The Democratic Alliance is playing games. It is not serious about HIV and AIDS.” 

Achmat’s group is calling for the government to draft a comprehensive treatment plan.  

“We want the government to handle this as an emergency without necessarily declaring it,” he said. 

South Africa’s biggest trade federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, on Monday repeated its appeal for Mbeki to declare the epidemic a national disaster. The group, an ally of the ruling African National Congress, first called on the government to declare the epidemic an emergency in August 1999. 

The trade federation accused the Democratic Alliance of “political opportunism” but spokesman Sipiwe Mgcina said Tuesday: “We welcome all the people who are joining the bandwagon.”