It was nearly a decade ago that I wrote a story about a protest by 5,000 scientists worldwide, including several at Stanford, against South Africa's policy of denying that HIV causes AIDS. Now comes a turnaround on the part of the new government, under recently elected President Jacob Zuma, who has acknowledged the mistakes of the past and underscored the need to grapple openly with the disease. "All South Africans must know that they are at risk and must take informed decisions to reduce their vulnerability to infection or, if infected, to slow the advance of the disease," Zuma was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "Most importantly, all South Africans need to know their HIV status and be informed of the treatment options available to them."
It is tragic that it has taken this long for South Africa to come to grips with AIDS; in the interim, as many as 365,000 people may have died because they did not seek treatment. South Africa now has the highest number of infections in the world, with an estimated 18.6 of adults infected, according to UNAIDS. The life expectancy for South African men now is 51, Zuma said in describing the chilling toll of the disease.
Zuma was elected president last year after his predecessor Thabo Mbeki was ousted by his party, the African National Congress. Mbeki had led the campaign of denial, claiming that AIDS was caused by other factors, such as malnutrition, and that the drugs used to treat the disease were "poison."