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Early Edition

'Washington Post': South African President Thabo Mbeki Trying to Highlight 'Grinding Poverty' in Context of AIDS Crisis

Aired July 11, 2000 - 7:31 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Some important news coming this morning out of the International AIDS Conference in South Africa: Leading U.S. researchers are proposing ways of helping developing countries deal with the high costs of AIDS treatment. Researchers say patients in Africa could be helped by cheap antibiotics and a controlled program of so-called "drug holidays," or short interruptions of treatment.

LINDA STOUFFER, CNN ANCHOR: And U.S. AIDS researcher, Dr. David Ho, today attacked South African President Thabo Mbeki for his controversial comments on AIDS. Mbeki has questioned whether HIV causes AIDS.

Barton Gellman has been writing on AIDS in Africa as a special projects correspondent for the "Washington Post." He's kind enough to join us this morning from the United Nations on this topic.

Mr. Gellman, thanks for being with us today.

BARTON GELLMAN, "WASHINGTON POST": Thanks for having me.

STOUFFER: First of all, I'd like to get some perspective on what's happening in South Africa, the number of people who have AIDS. Some estimates say as much as a quarter of the population could die of AIDS. Is that right?

GELLMAN: Right now, about 20 percent of the adults in South Africa are HIV positive, although most of them don't know it. Estimates are that probably a quarter of the adult population will die within 10 or 15 years. Half of those who are now 15 are likely to die of AIDS.

STOUFFER: When you're talking about a situation that would have such a huge impact on a country, and then you look at what South African President Thabo Mbeki is saying, he's questioned so much about what the medical establishment now believes about AIDS and the cause of AIDS. Why?

GELLMAN: It's actually quite understandable from his own point of view. He's, first of all, a sort of restless, roving intellect who likes to surf the Internet and is accustomed to being a dissident who allies himself against establishments. After all, he spent his whole adult life fighting apartheid. But I think, also, he's got a catastrophic problem that he knows he can't solve even if he follows every recommendation of the scientific establishments. If he accepts all of the conventional view about what causes AIDS and what treats it, he could quadruple his health budget and still not be able to treat the problem. And so I think he's keeping the scientific uncertainties alive because he doesn't want to portray himself as helpless.

STOUFFER: Do you think he's being misinterpreted outside South Africa? You think the rest of us looking in don't really understand what he's saying?

GELLMAN: Well, I think it's easy to say there is an obvious scientific truth, accept it and get on with it. I think what he's trying to do is find ways of changing the subject slightly so that he can ally the interest of treating his people as best he can with AIDS with his overarching interests of developing the country and bringing it out of this grinding poverty. And there are ways in which those two questions are related. And it's also true that he's not going to be able to solve his HIV problem only by looking at poverty issues.

STOUFFER: What are the immediate solutions, though, for getting past the politics and getting to the point where as many people are being saved as possible?

GELLMAN: Well, what the public health experts would tell you is they need to greatly increase their prevention campaign, public awareness, distribution of condoms. There are also structural issues. You still have in South Africa the legacy of an apartheid economy in which, for example, thousands of miners live in single-sex dorms for most of the year at a time in which conditions are ripe for spreading AIDS. That is to say, there are sex workers and alcohol and almost no social life for these people. Women in South Africa have very little control over when and with whom they have sex. Many of them feel powerless to ask for the use of condoms by their partners. So there are lots of big questions as well.

STOUFFER: Barton Gellman with the "Washington Post," thank you for being with us today for your perspective on the issue.

GELLMAN: Thank you.

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