In South Africa, activists fear trial will perpetuate AIDS myths

Knight Ridder NewspapersApril 26, 2006 

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—The rape trial of South Africa's former deputy president is nearing an end, but AIDS activists are worried that the impact of Jacob Zuma's testimony will linger much longer.

In court this month, Zuma, a charismatic politician and formerly the head of the national AIDS council, acknowledged he had unprotected sex with his accuser even though he knew she was HIV-positive. Then he took a shower, believing that would minimize his risk of contracting the virus.

Such pseudo-science coming from anyone, let alone a man once touted as South Africa's next president, would raise eyebrows. But AIDS activists say it's part of a history of inaccurate and conflicting statements about the disease from the top levels of South Africa's government.

Myths about the disease continue to stymie efforts to fight it.

South Africa has one of the world's highest AIDS caseloads. At least 1 in 5 South African adults is believed to be infected with HIV.

Because Zuma, 64, enjoys a huge following—scores of his supporters have surrounded the courthouse in Johannesburg every day since his trial began—activists believe his testimony could be a major setback in the fight against AIDS.

"It's had a profound effect on the public psyche," said Francois Venter, president of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society.

Venter said many patients have since asked him whether taking a shower could prevent HIV transmission or whether the risk of a man contracting HIV from a woman was indeed "minimal," as Zuma said in court.

Immediately following the testimony, the society put out a statement refuting Zuma's claims. But Venter said many South Africans are likely to believe Zuma, who's a populist hero, thanks to his role in South Africa's liberation struggle.

AIDS telephone hot lines have reported a spike in calls about "shower prevention" and the efficacy of condoms, activists said.

South Africa is easily the continent's most open, modern society, with a constitution enshrining civil liberties and the rights of women and gays. But the ruling African National Congress party has drawn widespread criticism for downplaying, and in some cases denying, the risks associated with HIV, which afflicts some 6.5 million South Africans, according to official estimates.

Some examples of wrong information:

_The health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been dubbed "Dr. Garlic" by her critics for insisting that a good diet—with helpings of garlic, olive oil, lemon and beetroot—can be as effective in staving off HIV as antiretroviral drugs.

_Health officials have given backing to a German-born entrepreneur, Matthias Rath, to distribute vitamin supplements as alternatives to antiretrovirals, which he says are poisonous.

_President Thabo Mbeki once questioned whether HIV and AIDS were linked. More recently he has been mum on the subject altogether.

The lack of leadership has prevented AIDS agencies from making much progress against the disease, activists said. Some 250,000 South Africans currently receive antiretroviral therapy, although hundreds of thousands still lack access to the lifesaving drugs.

"It's a big struggle," said Nathan Geffen, a spokesman for the Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS lobby group. "Civil society organizations are constantly wasting time responding to irresponsible statements like these."

Closing arguments in Zuma's trial began Wednesday. The former deputy president, once seen as a shoo-in to replace Mbeki when his term expires in 2009, faces another trial in July on corruption charges.

Zuma's backers have cast the trial as a witch hunt against the prominent Zulu tribe—a sentiment that Zuma stoked by testifying in Zulu, even though he speaks perfect English.

Zuma said the sexual encounter at his Johannesburg home in November was consensual and that his accuser, a 31-year-old family friend, signaled she wanted to have sex with him by wearing a skirt and crossing her legs.

Casting himself as a traditional Zulu male, Zuma said his culture doesn't permit a man to leave a woman in a state of arousal. Doing so, he said, would be akin to rape.

Zuma's supporters burned a portrait of his accuser outside the courtroom one day, and his attorneys devoted a large portion of their case to probing her sexual history. Women's activists said the trial has put the spotlight on a misogynistic culture in South Africa, where, according to one advocacy group, a rape occurs every 26 seconds.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SAFRICA-AIDSMYTHS

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