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Death Rate Climb in South Africa Attributed to HIV-Related Diseases

By Michael Wines


With South Africa’s anti-AIDS efforts under increasingly bitter assault by global experts and local activists, government statisticians reported Thursday that death rates for adults of virtually all ages and both sexes rose sharply from 1997 to 2004, in some groups by a factor of four or more.

AIDS is not reported as a cause of death in South Africa. But the age patterns of the increased deaths and their reported causes — in many cases parasitic infections, immune disorders and maternal conditions — made it likely that AIDS and ailments related to HIV were behind much of the trend, they stated.

The government report arrived as President Thabo Mbeki’s Cabinet simultaneously offered a fervent defense of its AIDS treatment program and appeared to shift some responsibility for the program from Mbeki’s embattled health minister, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

Long under attack for her insistence that foods like garlic and beetroot can stave off AIDS complications, she has been besieged by criticism since the U.N. envoy on AIDS, Stephen Lewis, berated the government’s polices at a global conference in Toronto last month.

Clearly referring to Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang, Lewis said the South African government “continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state” and called its program to provide antiretroviral drugs “obtuse, dilatory and negligent.”

After a Cabinet meeting on Thursday with Mbeki, the government’s ministers said they unreservedly rejected “all the unfounded claims that we don’t have a comprehensive program to fight the pandemic.”

At the same time, a spokesman said Mbeki had assigned his deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, to oversee a new council of Cabinet ministers to coordinate the government’s anti-AIDS programs.