South Africa’s Ministry of Health has confirmed that close to 6,000 HIV-positive people had died while receiving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs since the government rollout began in 2004.
Health department spokesman Sibani Mngadi said the deaths were a concern, but constituted just below 3 percent of the number of HIV-positive people accessing treatment at government ARV sites during the same period.
“The number of people being treated with antiretroviral therapy through our [government’s] ‘Comprehensive Plan on HIV and AIDS’ has increased [by] 60,000 in the past year to 235,378 by the end of September 2006,” he told IRIN/PlusNews.
He said there might be a number of factors resulting in the death of patients on ARVs, but “they would all be just speculation” without the proper monitoring systems in place.
Doctor Henry Sunpath, of McCord Hospital in Durban, disagreed with Mngadi and pointed out that the factors encouraging the deaths were all too real.
“These could be anything from fear of stigma and discrimination from both family and community to confusing information about the benefits of ARVs, as publicly expressed by the Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang herself,” said Sunpath.
Tshabalala-Msimang has consistently drawn international criticism for supporting the views of well-known AIDS dissidents, and her controversial promotion of remedies including garlic, beetroot and the African potato as effective means of treating HIV/AIDS.
Sunpath’s sentiments are shared by Dr Francois Venter, an HIV specialist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who charged that “it is conflicting views such as these which … [motivate] scores of people who still turn down or prematurely quit ARV therapy because they are too afraid of the exaggerated side effects.”
Some side effects of ARV medication could be fatal, he said, but these were easily avoided with the proper monitoring and care of patients, as were the rare cases of lactic acidosis (a condition caused by the buildup of lactic acid in the body) in patients using Stavudine (also known as Zerit or d4T), which is included in South Africa’s free programme.
Venter also pointed out that some could be caused by patients reporting to treatment sites when they were already in the advanced stage of infection.
“This is why the government, together with civil society organisations, needs to share a common goal in the effective rollout of ARVs to the huge numbers in need, with no fatalities in the process,” Venter added.
The government is to reveal its revised ‘Strategic Plan’ in December, which will guide the country’s response to AIDS and ensure continuity of the current strategies, as well as introduce additional interventions.