CAPE TOWN (Aug. 18)
South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies has joined the fight against HIV/AIDS, which affects an estimated 20 percent of the country’s 45 million population.
“It’s a fight that needs to be won,” national chairman Russell Gaddin said Aug. 14, when a senior delegation from the board met with the Treatment Action Campaign in Cape Town. The campaign is led by Muslim AIDS activist and former anti-apartheid campaigner Zackie Achmat and national TAC manager Nathan Geffen, who is Jewish.
“For Jews, life is the most precious thing. One can break virtually every religious law to save lives,” Gaddin said. Treatment and medication “should be a given. We should not need to plead for the cause.”
Vivienne Anstey, a regional leader of the board, said the Jewish community could look into assisting on three levels: motivating financial support, utilizing business connections within the Jewish community and helping to mobilize skills and resources within the community.
The visit from the board was inspired by Achmat, who is HIV-positive and has refused to take his prescribed medication until the South African government reverses its stance on withholding the drugs from patients in public hospitals. Former President Nelson Mandela visited Achmat when his health took a turn for the worse a few weeks ago.
The government for several years appeared to accept the views of so-called AIDS dissidents, who denied any link between HIV and AIDS, flying in the face of accepted medical and viral research in most countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa had almost three-quarters of the estimated 34 million infected adults world-wide in 1999, but the government opposed the use of anti-retroviral drugs for HIV and AIDS sufferers in public hospitals, even in cases where experience had shown them to be effective, largely in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the disease.
The TAC was established in 1998 by Achmat, a member of the governing African National Congress, to promote a national treatment plan for HIV-positive mothers and create AIDS awareness and greater openness about HIV and AIDS. Starting with only 10 people, membership has increased a thousandfold in only four years.
After a series of legal actions reached the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country, a landmark ruling was handed down earlier this year requiring a staggered rollout of anti-retroviral drugs in state hospitals. The ruling reluctantly was accepted by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who was quoted at the Barcelona AIDS conference last month as saying the drugs were poison.
Nevertheless, there has been some indication recently of a change in government thinking on the issue.