TAC’s fight against folly

2010-06-23 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign

Nathan Geffen

Jacana

IN the early nineties, HIV/Aids in South Africa was a manageable problem mainly confined to a ­distinct sector of the population. Crucially, only one pregnant woman in a hundred was HIV positive; yet ten years later the pandemic had become a national disaster. The reasons for this are complex, bizarrely illustrated by the demented belief of a former KwaZulu-Natal MEC for health that the virus was created as an act of bioterrorism.

What is striking about this book is the extent to which it reflects the best and worst of the old and new South Africas. Nathan Geffen describes how the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) courageously carried on the tradition of civic, grassroots struggle that grew up under apartheid. In a chilling rerun of ­National Party rule, he recounts state-sponsored lawlessness: the government indulged Matthias Rath’s unauthorised medical trials and untested claims about the ­medicinal power of his vitamins.

Geffen expands on these themes in a down-to-earth, easily digestible style interspersed with the odd droll comment. His choicest phrases are reserved for the quacks who latched on to popular distrust of the government health system. This book makes it clear that HIV/Aids in this country is primarily a political problem, although Geffen goes no further than a brief aside about racial nationalism.

Perhaps most disturbing is the ­little-known story of the destruction of the well-run Medicines Control Council (MCC), the purge of its highly ­respected scientific administrators and the proposed Medicines Act that threatens to place clinical trials under political control. This followed the refusal of the MCC to test Virodene, a toxic industrial solvent, seen by some in the ANC as a cure for HIV/Aids.

Studies show that government denialism and incompetence cost over 300 000 lives that could have been saved by a timely roll out of antiretrovirals (ARVs). The survivors have a great deal for which to thank the TAC, and Geffen has written a book worthy of its struggle for social justice.

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