It is this stubbornness that has seriously damaged the legacy of former President Thabo Mbeki. At the peak of HIV/Aids pandemic, the Mbeki administration – going against consensus scientific opinion – argued HIV was not the cause of Aids and that anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs were not useful for people living with the pandemic.
It is this obstinacy, in the midst of widespread universal condemnation, that has been linked to the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of lives. The country now faces a different crisis of similar proportions and, worryingly, it appears we have not learnt any valuable lessons from the havoc wreaked by Aids denialism. Cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB) are on the rise; however, the government has hitherto refused to support calls to declare the epidemic a public health emergency.
This despite the scourge being declared an emergency by the World Health Organisation. Figures presented at the South African TB conference in Durban last week paint a disturbing picture. Last year alone, there were more than 10 000 cases of multiple drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). There are fears that this figure might have risen to 15 000 this year. Doctors believe that 75% of extensively drug resistant TB patients die within five years – a death rate much higher than that associated with cancer.
That the country is facing a mortality crisis is there for all to see – except our government. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who has been hailed for his efforts to re-engineer SA’s public health system, risks having his good reputation tarnished like that of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who, despite being a qualified doctor, doggedly denied scientific evidence over HIV/Aids.
There are still numerous problems facing our health system. However, under Motsoaledi, the country has made significant progress in lowering maternal and child mortality. The government has also done a sterling job in reversing SA’s dramatic fall in life expectancy. However, refusal to declare DR-TB crisis a national emergency threatens to erode these laudable gains.