In South Africa, one of the worst hit countries from HIV/AIDS and the home to most of the people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the world, onetime president Thabo Mbeki’s comments on causation of AIDS led to severe criticism against him across the world. Mbeki during his presidency (1999 – 2008) famously ignored the link between HIV and AIDS, and attributed poverty to causation of AIDS. Grippingly Mbeki’s view was influenced and supported by some very notable personalities including nuclear biologists Nobel laureate Kerry Mullis and Peter Duesberg and AIDS activist Christine Joy Maggiore, a profound campaigner of "AIDS denialism", who herself was HIV positive.

Mbeki’s administration was severely criticized for failing to respond adequately to the AIDS epidemic, and in particular for its failure to implement an antiretroviral programme to prevent HIV transmission from pregnant mothers to babies while in the womb. His trustworthy minister of health Dr. 'Manto' Edmie Tshabalala-Msimang, dubbed Mrs. Beetroot, was ridiculed for advocating garlic and beetroot, rather than antiretroviral medicines for the treatment of AIDS. Mbeki's government did, however, introduce a law allowing cheaper locally produced generic medicines, and in April 2001 succeeded in defending a legal action brought by transnational pharmaceutical companies to set aside the law. Despite international drug companies offering free or cheap antiretroviral drugs, until 2003, South Africans with HIV who used the public sector health system could only get treatment for opportunistic infections they suffered from, but could not get antiretrovirals designed to specifically target HIV. In November 2003, the government finally approved a plan to make antiretroviral treatment publicly available. It appears that this was only after the Cabinet had over-ruled the President. It is believed that due to Mbeki's rejection of scientific consensus on AIDS and his embrace of AIDS denialism, an estimated 365,000 people had perished in South Africa.

However, Mbeki’s utterances are not something to let pass lightly. After all, this University of London and Moscow’s prestigious Lenin International School graduate cum ardent African National Congressman, was not a pushover to go back on his words amidst international criticism. In defense of his opinion, he fought tooth and nail. Although the scientific soundness of Mbeki proposition needless to say is dim-witted, the social value of it is not to be belittled. (Subsequently, Mbeki denied that he ever said HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. What he claims to have said was that a single agent (HIV) cannot cause a syndrome, and it has to be interplay of various factors that cause a syndrome). Some regard Mbeki among the first few influentials of the world to put the socio-economic aspect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the right track.

Interestingly Mbeki, not a medical man though, raised a strong argument in defense of his thesis. Many of his ideas are known to have captured succinctly in the book titled "Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot & Mouth and Statistics: HIV/Aids and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African". This anonymously-authored 114 page document was distributed to party members during the 51st National Conference of the African National Congress. Mbeki, exemplary for a politician, cogently argued his point in the book. Here is an excerpt of an interview of his to the "Times Live".

"The first report on the incidence of HIV in South and Southern Africa was published in the "New England Journal of Medicine" and the "South African Medical Journal", both in 1985. Two of the most important findings in this report were that in our country and region: HIV infection was confined to male homosexuals; and, HIV was not endemic in this region of the world. During the same year, October 1985, German researchers had an article published in The Lancet. They stated that: "the data suggest that HTLV-III (later named HIV) was rare in Africa until recently, and still is rare in much of the continent."

Five years later, this situation had changed completely. They say that now, in our region and country, the HIV was transmitted heterosexually and that it had become endemic. The point made in the 1985 report about male homosexuals and HIV coincided with what science said about the incidence of HIV in the US and Western Europe at the time. To all intents and purposes, 15 years later, this situation has not changed both in the US and in Western Europe. But, as we have said, and as is generally known, our own situation has changed radically. The question that arises from this is – WHY?

Why does the virus behave

differently in the US and Africa

Why does the same virus behave differently in the US and Western Europe from the way it behaves in Southern Africa!  If we are interested in the advance of scientific knowledge, the better to understand the African human condition, it is imperative that an answer be found.

It would seem equally obvious that for us successfully to deal with the HIV as it affects us, we need to understand what induces it to behave differently in different parts of the world. In answer to these questions, they say that we are affected by a particular type or variant of the HIV, which is unique to ourselves and which also mutates at a high frequency rate.

However, this answer throws up new questions. Why is this special type of HIV confined only to our region of the world! Why does it not spread to other areas, even within Africa! What happened to the 1985 South African HIV which behaved in the same way as the US and West European HIV! If it mutated into what it is today, why did it not mutate in the same way in the US and Western Europe!

Once more, scientifically substantiated answers to these questions are necessary to enable us to defeat the HIV as it affects us. It would seem only logical, once the assertion was made that ours is a unique HIV, that, consequently, unique solutions have to be found to respond to this distinct situation. Thirteen years later today I would stand by everything said in this excerpt and still ask that the questions posed should be answered by those who have the scientific capacity to do so!"

Mbeki’s preposition got a shot in the arm when Prof. Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the HIV and 2008 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, supported his viewpoint. In a documentary entitled "House of Numbers" Montagnier commented, "…I believe we can be exposed to HIV many times without being chronically infected. Our  immune system will get rid of the virus within a few weeks, if you have a good immune system. And this is the problem of the African people.

Their nutrition is not very equilibrated; they are in oxidative stress, even if they are not infected with HIV; so their immune system doesn't work well already. So it's prone, it can, you know, allow HIV to get in and persist. So there are many ways which are not the vaccine, to decrease the transmission. Just by simple measures of nutrition, giving antioxidants -- proper antioxidants -- hygiene measures, fighting the other infections. So they are not spectacular, but they could, you know, decrease very well the epidemic, to the level they are in occidental countries, western countries…We should push for more, you know, a combination of measures; antioxidants, nutrition advice, nutrition, fighting other infections -- malaria, tuberculosis, parasitosis, worms -- education of course, genital hygiene for women and men also, very simple measures which [are] not very expensive, but which could do a lot.

Subsequent to this interview Mbeki asked his critic, "Why were we wrong when we said the things Prof Montagnier said, while these were correct when he said them?" Quite true, isn’t it?

They lived fast…and died young
AIDS – the killer

Continued from last week

During the last quarter of the 20th century HIV/AIDS swept across the globe like wildfire. In the initial phase of the epidemic, three Hs – denoting homosexuals, heroin addicts and haemophiliacs – were incriminated with the spread of the disease, thus, discriminating them invariably. . HIV spread was associated with heroin use for the needle sharing habit of the intravenous drug users (IDUs), which in fact was an obvious high risk. The haemophiliacs, for the need of frequent blood transfusions and the high risk coupled with that (for the HIV tainted blood and blood products susceptible of being transfused) were seen as the "innocent victims" during the early years of the epidemic. This was the time when America and Europe were in the limelight of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Africa, although was teeming inside in silence from the disease, was very much the "Dark Continent" in the eyes of the world then. That was the world politics of HIV/AIDS then.

Rock Hudson

Iconic Hollywood actor Rock Hudson (1925 – 85) (born Roy Harold Scherer) was one of the first luminary personalities to die from AIDS. This four-time Golden Globe Award winner, who performed on set opposite some most glamorous women in the word in the likes of Liz Taylor, Julie Andrews, Jennifer Jones to name a few, had been attracted to persons of same sex sexually all through, which his manager kept on the sly for a long time. This admirer of women but lover of men, stayed married to one Phyllis Gates briefly, a marriage that began to disintegrate soon after their honeymoon, due to the former’s homosexual inclinations. Speculations were rife that Hudson had a strong relationship with actor Jim Nabors before his marriage to Gates.

A heavy drinker and smoker, Hudson’s health began to deteriorate in the early 80s. He suffered a heart attack in November 1981, for which he underwent a bypass surgery. Hudson recovered from the heart surgery but continued to smoke, which further deteriorated his health condition. He was diagnosed with IDS in June 1984. Hudson died from AIDS in October 1985.

Freddie Mercury

Six years after Rock Hudson’s death, in November 1991, the world grieved again the untimely death of flamboyant singer cum song writer Freddie Mercury (1946 – 91). The rock band Queen’s front man Mercury was 45 years old at the time of his death. After much mumbo jumbo, Mercury went public about his HIV status a day before his death. Although quite a few celebrities in the likes of Tom Fogerty (co-founder of the American rock band Credence Clearwater Revival, who contracted HIV following a blood transfusion), gay film and stage actor Ian Charleson (who portrayed significant roles in the Oscar winning films Chariots of Fire and Gandhi) and the world’s first super model Gia Marie Carangi (who contracted HIV through intravenous drug use) died from AIDS during this period, none of these deaths could create the impact Mercury’s death had on the world.

Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, Tanzania and brought up in Bombay, India, was an extremely talented musician gifted with a four-octave vocal range. His first album "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975) was taken by a storm by the music lovers around the world, became an instant success for Mercury and the band Queen. Arguably, the best male singer of all time, (which he was voted as in 2005), he was posthumously awarded the Brit Award in 1992 for the outstanding contribution to the British music. Some of the songs written by him, namely "Killer Queen," "Somebody to Love," "We Are the Champions," "Bicycle Race," "Don't Stop Me Now," and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" were among the all time hits in the music world. The most notable aspect of his songwriting involved the wide range of genres that he used.

An electric entertainer on stage, Mercury was voted as the greatest live performer in the history of rock music (in 2005). Yet he was a shy person in the company of non-friends. David Bowie, praised Mercury's performance style as, "Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest... he took it over the edge…he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand". According to Queen guitarist Brian May, "Freddie could make the last person at the back of the furthest stand in a stadium feel that he was connected". That was the kind of dynamism Mercury infused into his music and performance.

Mercury’s gay affiliation was well known. Although he had a long standing relationship with a lady by the name Mary Austin, who subsequent to his death inherited most of his wealth, Mercury had numerous relationships with men, of whom hair-dresser Jim Hutton was notable. Hutton, who was also HIV positive, nursed Mercury during his latter part of life. The Sun once claimed Mercury had "confessed to a string of one-night gay sex affairs". However, Mercury always regarded Austin "Love of my Life", for whom he wrote his famous ballad by the same theme.

Kiki Gyan 

The keyboard artist of the band Osibisa, the popular all-black band of the 70s, Kiki Gyan (1957 – 64), was another musician who withered away before his time from AIDS for his heavy addicition to drugs. The Ghanaian, Gyan was 47 years old at the time of his death. The immensely talented keyboardist and composer Gyan, who was a millionaire by the age of 18, died a pauper in a church bathroom in Ghana, from AIDS and drugs-related complications.

Gyan, became a professional pianist cum keyboardist at the age of 12. He was only 15 years old when he joined Osibisa. Although he was overshadowed by bigger Teddy Osei and Osibisa in the beginning, he was ranked among the world’s top ten keyboardists during his hey days. It is said about Gyan, "by 18 he hung out with Elton John and Mick Jagger, played for Britain's queen and cruised on champagne-drenched luxury ocean-liners to island-hop in the Caribbean. He left Osibisa to go solo in 1979 and recorded the single "24 Hours in a Disco", which hit the charts in the US and the UK. On his departure from Osibisa Gyan said "I used to write most of the songs. But because I was so young, Teddy would rather take the credit and I felt cheated".

Gyan later went to the United States where he associated himself with some bad gangs who introduced him to drugs and that was the beginning of his downfall. In fact he started using the money he had in purchasing hard drugs such as cocaine, heroine, etc. Gyan’s wife divorced him "since he had taken the drugs to be his new wife and neither catered for me nor had any feeling for me and the daughter’.   

Kiki spent almost all the money he had on drugs and came back to Ghana as he was broke. While in Ghana he often advised youth not to get allured by drugss. "Stay away from drugs and focus on whatever you are doing and also have faith in the good Lord" were his words to the kids. Gyan, a man who amassed a huge wealth in his youth, had only few coins in his pocket at the time of his death.

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