I don't have any special knowledge of the nature of AIDS, or of its causes and potential cures. What concerns me about the trend of the debate in South Africa is the manner in which the anti-HIV lobby is now drawing on health-unrelated issues to condemn ARVs.
They say that vast sums of money are now being mobilised for spending on AIDS treatment world-wide, and that the massive international pharmaceutical lobby is exploiting this situation by promoting production and use of highly expensive and questionable ARVs for their own profit.
Two main civil institutions now exist in South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which acknowledges the existence of HIV, and the Treatment Information Group (TIG), which challenges it.
The anti-HIV Treatment Information Group challenges the existence of an HIV virus, which some of its supporters claim has not even been isolated, yet. The position of the so-called denialists is apparently that if AIDS, a syndrome, exists at all, that it is more likely to be caused at cellular level by toxic drugs.
The local denialists draw on the arguments of their American counterparts, Duesberg, Koehnlein, and Rasnick that the chemical basis of the various AIDS epidemics are recreational drugs, antiviral chemotherapy and malnutrition. A Professor Patrick MacPhail, who apparently wrote a most unfortunate letter in the current debate, with very disturbing connotations, claiming that the causes of AIDS were not poverty and malnutrition, but our weakness for promiscuous sex, challenged this.
One of the leading AIDS denialists in South Africa, Professor Sam Mhlongo, MD, teamed up with David Rasnick, quoted above, to expose MacPhail's racism.
With the denialists accusing the Treatment Action Campaign of allying itself with the Pharmaceutical companies for the production of costly ARVs and being funded by them, the TAC has responded by attacking a new liaison between the TIG and the Dr Rath Health Foundation, which has branches in the Netherlands, South Africa, Germany and America.
It reportedly deals with nutritional and cellular research. On Dr Rath's website, apparently, cellular medicine is called a new branch of medicine that scientifically establishes nutrient deficiencies as the root causes of today,s most common diseases.
He apparently claims, as the Johannesburg Star reports, that an optimal daily intake of nutrients is essential for disease prevention and the treatment of heart disease, cancers, and immune deficiencies which are precursors of infectious diseases.
His Foundation's goal is to integrate natural health methods into public health strategies through its campaign of creating a new global healthcare system that any country can adopt. The Rath Foundation has the support of Dr Mhlongo.
The Minister of Health in South Africa, Dr Manto Tshabala-Msimang, is partial to these ideas, apparently, and has reportedly long advocated good nutrition as an alternative to the use of ARVs because of their potential side effects. Her recipe of olive oil, lemon, beetroot and garlic as an alternative to ARVs has been criticised worldwide.
The Treatment Action Campaign, which Zackie Achmat co-founded and of which he is honorary national chairperson, has launched a an investigation into both Dr Rath and his Foundation.
The TAC is suing Dr Rath for defamation, claiming the Foundation accused it of accepting funds from pharmaceutical companies. An individual critic of ARVs is a man called Anthony Brink, who authored several articles on the subject of ARVs, including one with the title, Debating AZT: Questions of Safety and Utility, which reportedly led President Thabo Mbeki to query the safety of ARVs and request an investigation into them in Parliament in 1999.
Brink accused the TAC of silencing anyone raising the issue of the drug's toxicity. He has now associated himself with the Rath Foundation.
Zackie Achmat reportedly claims that Dr Rath wouldn't have come so far in his campaign to prove that his vitamins are safer and better than ARVs if the Minister of Health had clearly stated that food, ARVs and a healthy lifestyle were essential ingredients for people living with HIV/AIDS.
He also noted that Dr Rath claimed to have the support of President Mbeki, who now makes cautious and limited statements about HIV/AIDS.
There is substantial evidence that the President sympathises with the denialists privately, and that it was Anita Allen, once the Science correspondent of the Star, and an early denialists, who gave the president the reasons he needed to Confirm and strengthen the dissident position he was sympathetic to.
The TAC is not alone in its fears that Dr Rath and his foundation are contributing to public confusion about ARVs and could be plunging South Africa deeper into the HIV quagmire, according to The Star.
It also reported that COSATU, the South African Council of Churches, the South African Medical Association, the World Health Organisation, the UN and Unicef have condemned Rath's claims.
Dr Jan van den Ende, a clinical pathologist and member of the Southern Africa HIV Clinicians Society says ART aims to promote: Recovery of the immune system; the greatest possible resistance to HIV; a reduction in the viral load and to reduce the chances of HIV transmission.
He acknowledges that possible side effects of the four most commonly used ARTs in South Africa include gastro-intestinal trouble, bone marrow deficiency, and anaemia.
There are others, but the bottom line, says the good doctor, is that all drugs, not only ARVs, have side effects. The newer drugs are associated with less toxicity and intolerance.
Is the choice ARVs etc, or an earlier death for those who have HIV?