The Tragic Cost of Being Unscientific

PRINCETON – Throughout his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that AIDS is caused by a virus, HIV, and that antiretroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it. Instead, he embraced the views of a small group of dissident scientists who suggested other causes for AIDS.

Mbeki stubbornly continued to embrace this position even as the evidence against it became overwhelming. When anyone – even Nelson Mandela, the heroic resistance fighter against apartheid who became South Africa’s first black president – publicly questioned Mbeki’s views, Mbeki’s supporters viciously denounced them.

While Botswana and Namibia, South Africa’s neighbors, provided anti-retrovirals to the majority of its citizens infected by HIV, South Africa under Mbeki failed to do so. A team of Harvard University researchers has now investigated the consequences of this policy. Using conservative assumptions, it estimates that, had South Africa’s government provided the appropriate drugs, both to AIDS patients and to pregnant women who were at risk of infecting their babies, it would have prevented 365,000 premature deaths.

That number is a revealing indication of the staggering costs that can arise when science is rejected or ignored.  It is roughly comparable to the loss of life from the genocide in Darfur, and close to half of the toll from the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.