Last week, the New York Times published a curious op-ed entitled “Why Africa Fears Western Medicine,” by Harriet A. Washington. The piece was published days after the Libyan government’s release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, who had been falsely accused of injecting hundreds of children with H.I.V., and then sentenced to death (the release was arranged, with much fanfare, via a $426 million ransom paid by European governments). Washington writes that “to dismiss the Libyan accusations of medical malfeasance out of hand means losing an opportunity to understand why a dangerous suspicion of medicine is so widespread in Africa.”
Washington has little to say about the wisdom of Africans’ rejection of advanced Western medicine in favor of “traditional” African remedies. Instead of an explanation, she cites a list of “high-profile Western medical miscreants who have intentionally administered deadly agents under the guise of providing health care or conducting research.” And it’s true that the quacks she lists—like Wouter Basson, the former head of the apartheid South African regime’s chemical weapons program (though he is a white South African, not “Western”)—have sowed distrust among Africans about the intentions of Western doctors.
But what of the Western doctors welcomed to South Africa by President Thabo Mbeki? Washington neglects to mention, for instance, Peter Duesberg, one of the leaders of the H.I.V. denialist movement, which seeks to discredit the contention that H.I.V. causes AIDS. Nor does Washington note Matthias Rath, a German doctor who peddles vitamins and promises of a cure for AIDS to poor blacks in shantytowns. And of course there is the South African Minister of Health, widely derided as “Dr. Beetroot,” for suggesting that AIDS sufferers eat Beetroot and African potatoes to treat AIDS. Earlier this week, President Mbeki fired his deputy health minister, one of the few people in his government deserving of praise for anti-AIDS prevention work. Perhaps Harriet A. Washington should start asking African leaders to look at their own failings on the AIDS front before blaming the West for the continent’s problems.