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Thursday, 19 October, 2000, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
South Africa's untouchables
aids victim
Blunt message: Aids kills indiscriminately
By Nigel Wrench

There is one item in my luggage when I travel anywhere that is absolutely crucial.

Not a passport, that can be replaced at any consulate, given time and patience. Not a credit card, because what are banks for if not mobilising to help a stranded client.

No. My crucial item is an orange box, about the size of a shoebox.

It rattles when you shake it and if it's opened at customs, it's my task to explain away the white plastic containers of Ritonavir capsules, the large glass bottle with orange and green Saquinavir capsules inside and the foil sheets of Combivir pills - the medication that makes up the cocktail of drugs that keep me and millions of other people with Aids alive, by suppressing the HIV virus.

So at the beginning of my trip to South Africa where I lived for 18 years the orange box was safely in my hand luggage.

No-one stopped me at customs. However, a poster above passport control graphically illustrated the relevance of my small cargo to this country.

"Aids kills indiscriminately," it said, starkly. In a country where Aids is a national emergency the message cannot be subtle.

The gay Aids epidemic

aids drugs
The right drugs make Aids a manageable illness
The stories I heard in South Africa, in its first spring of the 21st Century, reminded me of the early days of the gay Aids epidemic.

Jill in Johannesburg told me the tale of the man who worked in the restaurant where she is maitre d'hotel - how he seemed at first to lose weight and then became lethargic.

Eventually he was frequently absent due to mysterious and unexplained illness.

Somewhere along the line there was an HIV test. He tested positive and left Johannesburg to go to his home village to be looked after, presumably to die.

Another friend said that someone who worked for her was ill and didn't know what it was. "I wonder if..." she said, somehow unable to say the unsayable.

For me it was as if the world where I live from day to day - where Aids is, for the moment at least, a manageable illness, given handfuls of drugs and their side effects - no longer existed.

I began to keep the contents of the orange box, so often taken for granted, in a safe in my hotel - the medication somehow vulnerable where it is not only rare and expensive but where its effects are officially doubted.

Does HIV cause Aids?

thabo mbeki
President Thabo Mbeki doubts whether HIV can cause Aids
Because, as you may know, Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, still has his doubts on whether HIV alone can cause Aids.

"A virus cannot cause a syndrome," he told parliament while I was there.

As a journalist I have a duty to be neutral on this as on other political matters. The trouble is personal experience teaches me that HIV does cause Aids.

What's more I take medication that suppresses the HIV virus. The effect is I'm no longer ill.

By my very existence, you could say, I am biased on the subject - on President Mbeki and whether HIV causes Aids. I make no apology for that.

It became a topic time after time over dinner. Did I know why Thabo Mbeki was denying the obvious? Did I with my box of drugs and my good health have any fresh insight?

I could only repeat my comparison with the gay epidemic.

Not only were the half-whispered rumours of who might or might not have the virus, the tales of people who've withdrawn to die, appallingly familiar. But so was the grasping at any possible cause for this illness, at any way to cure it.

At the end of my South African trip I joined the tourist ferry for the 25-minute ride across Table Bay to Robben Island. The hydrofoil skipped across the swell as Table Mountain fell away behind us with Cape Town below it.

It is a journey and a view that political prisoners, like Nelson Mandela, knew well, as they were transported to their cells from the mainland.

Untouchables

robben island prison
Robben Island: a former leper colony
Before them, though, people with leprosy were kept there, to isolate them from everyone else.

On the bus tour around the dusty roads of Robben Island, just before we got to the quarry where Mandela and others were forced to work, we pulled up next to a small graveyard.

These, said the guide, were the graves of people who had died with leprosy on Robben Island. Remember, he said, that they were treated like we used to treat people with Aids a few years ago.

Through the rest of the tour, his remarks and that graveyard remained in my head. Because I think the guide might be wrong.

In South Africa now having Aids is still all too like having leprosy. You are the untouchable.

And as we took the boat back to Cape Town, I wondered when a guide will be able to stop at another sort of graveyard and explain the chequered history of another illness. One that devastated his country early in the 21st Century.

See also:

16 Oct 00 | Africa
20 Jul 00 | Science/Nature
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