Former president Thabo Mbeki has reignited tension around his approach to HIV and Aids. Picture: Sharon Seretlo

Johannesburg - South Africans should not be distracted by former president Thabo Mbeki’s contentious comments about HIV and Aids as this could reignite troublesome emotions.

This is according to the South African National AIDS Council (Sanac), in response to public uproar over Mbeki’s recent comments on the epidemic and the manner in which he handled it during his time in office.

“The leadership of Sanac advises the nation against a debate that will take us back to a fractious past and can only serve as a distraction,” said Sanac chief executive Dr Fareed Abdullah.

Mbeki, who was in power from 1999 and 2008 but was forced to step down, was again labelled an Aids denialist by critics in the spat.

Mbeki and his then-health minister, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, refused to roll out a full-scale HIV treatment programme, an act critics blamed as contributing towards the deaths of thousands of people.

But the former president has defended his handing of the epidemic and, in his weekly letter published on his website, reiterated his stance on HIV and Aids. He maintained that poverty was a major factor in contracting Aids and that HIV itself did not cause it. “As you know, Aids is an acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - therefore Aids is a syndrome, ie a collection of well-known diseases, with well-known causes,” he wrote.

“They are not, together, caused and cannot be caused by one virus! I said that HIV might be a contributory cause of immune deficiency - the ID in Aids.”

Despite Mbeki’s comments which have sparked outrage, Sanac, which is chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, is calling on South Africans not to be distracted from the progress made recently with regards to the epidemic.

“South Africa has the largest antiretroviral treatment programme in the world. This is something we should all be proud of as a nation,” said Abdullah.

He said that due to the roll-out of the antiretroviral treatment programme, the country had one of the most effective programmes to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth and the breastfeeding period.

But HIV lobby group the Treatment Action Campaign lambasted Mbeki for his comments, insisting that thousands of people died of the virus because he was unwilling during his tenure to roll out antiretroviral treatment.

“The impact of Mbeki’s Aids denialism was catastrophic,” said the TAC.

“Many of our family members, friends and comrades died while Mbeki’s government dragged its feet and indulged pseudo-scientific nonsense.”

In 2002, the TAC won a Constitutional Court case against the government which compelled the state to make antiretroviral treatment available to HIV-positive pregnant women.

The lobby group said Mbeki had yet to take responsibility or apologise to those who suffered because of his denialism.

“For this, history will judge him harshly. He deserves it,” said the TAC.

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The Star