(PlusNews) – Political commitment is key to the success of HIV programmes and African leaders have been at the forefront of the fight against HIV on the continent, but politicians also have the power to harm HIV/AIDS campaigns.
Uganda’s recently appointed health minister, Christine Ondoa, has been berated by AIDS activists for comments she allegedly made in an interview with a local newspaper on 1 August. According to The Observer, Ondoa claimed to know three people who had been cured of HIV through prayer.
“I am sure and I have evidence that someone who was [HIV] positive turned negative after prayers,” she said.
Activists described her comments as “careless and misleading”. Ondoa joins a long list of African leaders who have been criticized for comments deemed detrimental to the fight against HIV; here are some of the more controversial statements made by politicians:
Thabo Mbeki – In 1999, the then South African president said the ARV zidovudine – also known as AZT – had toxic side-effects and was dangerous to health, and as such, the government would not provide it free of charge to HIV-positive pregnant women.
Mbeki stirred controversy when he questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS; in 2000 he set up a Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel, largely comprising AIDS denialists, to discuss how South Africa should deal with the crisis.
Mbeki also evoked conspiracy theories by alleging that the US Central Intelligence Agency, working with large pharmaceutical companies, was part of a conspiracy to promote the view that HIV caused AIDS.
In 2001, the NGO Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) filed a lawsuit against the government aimed at giving HIV-positive pregnant women access to the ARV, nevirapine, used to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child. TAC won the case, and the government was forced to provide the drug through the public health system.
According to the authors of a 2008 Harvard study, more than 330,000 lives were lost as a result of the delays in implementing a feasible and timely ARV treatment programme in South Africa.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang – South Africa’s health minister from 1999 to 2008 under Mbeki, her years in office were characterized by controversy, largely due to her reluctance to develop public sector policies involving the use of ARVs to fight AIDS.
Even after ARVs became available, Tshabalala-Msimang continued to cast doubt on their safety and efficacy, actively endorsing alternative therapists who promoted scientifically untested alternatives to ARVs.
Her approach to HIV/AIDS drew widespread international condemnation, which came to a head following the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, when she insisted that garlic, lemon and beetroot be displayed in South Africa’s exhibition booth.
Tshabalala-Msimang was eventually replaced after Mbeki stepped down and passed away in 2009.
Yahya Jammeh – In 2007, the Gambian president announced he had “perfected a treatment for the AIDS virus” using herbs, a move that drew widespread criticism from AIDS activists who feared it would set back the country’s fight against the virus.
Following her criticism of the president’s announcement, the Gambian government expelled the most senior UN official in the country, UN resident coordinator Dadzai Gwardzimba.
In 2008, some experts in the Gambia suggested that Jammeh’s claim to have found a cure had had the unexpected effect of raising the profile of ARV treatment by “reducing the social stigma of HIV-positive status and by making people realize traditional treatments do not always work”. Others said that by treating people living with HIV himself, Jammeh had helped dismantle the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Jammeh has not rejected the treatment of HIV using ARVs; officials say his treatment programme runs parallel to the national ARV programme. The president later altered the language he used for his remedy, no longer calling it a “cure”, but saying the virus could no longer be detected in people who “graduated” from his programme.
I am sure and I have evidence that someone who was [HIV] positive turned negative after prayersTimothy Myeni – The Swazi MP was left embarrassed after media reports claimed he had suggested branding HIV-positive people on the buttocks in order to prevent the virus from spreading.
“Before having sex with anyone, people will have to check their partners’ buttocks,” he was quoted as saying.
AIDS activists said such a move would go against human rights principles and increase stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV in the country, which has the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate.
Myeni later said he had been misquoted, and had suggested HIV-positive people be marked as a way to enable them to access medical services faster; he apologized for any damage his statement may have caused.
Yoweri Museveni – Uganda’s president – once hailed for his forthright and aggressive stance against HIV – raised eyebrows at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok in 2004 when he suggested some sexual styles used by Africans did not lend themselves to condom use. Media reports said Museveni claimed condoms institutionalized mistrust in sexual relationships, disturbed some African sexual styles and might not be used consistently by people who abused alcohol, for example.
While Museveni said condoms had a place in the fight against HIV, he claimed that abstinence had been responsible for a sharp decline in HIV prevalence in Uganda.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni raised eyebrows when he said some sexual styles used in Africa did not lend themselves to condom use Museveni has been criticized in the past for downplaying the role of condoms in favour of abstinence in Uganda’s HIV prevention programme as a result of funding from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief under former US President George W Bush.
Raila Odinga – In 2010, Kenya’s prime minister called for a national crackdown on homosexuals, leaving AIDS activists concerned that gay Kenyans – already marginalized in the fight against HIV – would find it even more difficult to access HIV services.
At a political rally in the capital Nairobi, Odinga ordered the police to arrest and bring criminal charges against anyone found engaging in sex with someone of the same gender. He added that the country’s constitution made it clear that homosexual activity was not tolerated.
“These remarks not only increase the possibility of [homophobic] attacks but will also interrupt treatment programmes – how do you go for treatment when you are a marked man?” David Kuria, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, remarked at the time.
Esther Murugi – Kenya’s minister for special programmes – hailed in 2010 for standing up for the rights of gays – drew harsh criticism when in January 2011 she suggested that isolating HIV-positive people could be the way to eradicate the pandemic.
“In Cuba, when President [Fidel] Castro was still very strong, anybody who was tested with HIV and AIDS was actually locked somewhere and once you went in, you did not come out,” Murugi said at a meeting with members of parliament on HIV/AIDS. “I don’t know whether we should be that drastic or what we should do. But sometimes I think, maybe that is what we should do so that those who are ill are locked in.”
Several rights groups called for the minister to either resign or publicly apologize for her remarks; she did neither.
Jacob Zuma – In 2006, while defending himself against allegations of rape by a woman he knew to be HIV-positive, South Africa’s president was quoted by media reports as saying he had taken a shower because this “would minimize the risk of contracting the disease [HIV]”.
Zuma said he normally used condoms, but did not have one available on the night in question.
Following Zuma’s comments, local media reported that the National AIDS Helpline was inundated with calls about whether taking a shower after unprotected sex could minimize the risk of contracting HIV.
Zuma has since championed the fight against HIV in South Africa, winning plaudits from AIDS activists for improvements in the country’s national treatment programme and for taking an HIV test and publicly declaring his results.
Paul Evans Aidoo – The Ghanaian minister for the western region caused concern when he publicly described homosexuality as “detestable and abominable” after media reports in late May that 8,000 homosexuals had registered with health NGOs in the country’s west.
According to local NGOs, the minister’s comments had made it much more difficult for gay Ghanaians to access HIV services; they say at least one health worker was beaten up and accused of being gay as a result.
“It has brought about a lot of fear and stigma for the people. It is difficult to organize programmes,” MacDarling Cobbinah of the Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights told IRIN/PlusNews. “It is very difficult for people to walk freely on the street… The call for arrest has really pushed people down.”