27 November 2006

Aids controversy erupts

Controversy has erupted after a former state pathologist faced a disciplinary hearing for writing "Aids" as the cause of death on a woman's death certificate.

Controversy has erupted after a former state pathologist faced a disciplinary hearing on Thursday and Friday for writing "Aids" as the cause of death on a woman's death certificate.

While the trade union Solidarity was hailing the hearing as a potential watershed, the Aids Law Project has asked some serious questions about the details of the case.

"The hearing can be a watershed for South Africa in view of the fact Aids cannot at present be entered on a death certificate as the cause of death", Solidarity's Dirk Hermann said.

"If he is exonerated and it is found that doctors may in future indicate Aids as the real cause of death on certificates, it would have tremendous consequences for the statistical documentation of this pandemic," Hermann said.

"Currently doctors cannot indicate Aids as the cause of death," Sapa reported on Thursday.

ALP questions assertions
The Aids Law Project (ALP) however challenged this opinion in a statement released to the media on Friday. They explained that, "when a patient dies, a doctor is required to complete a death notice. This consists of two pages. The cause of death recorded on the first page should only be either “natural causes” or “unnatural causes”. This page is given to the family, who use it to apply to the Department of Home Affairs for an official death certificate. It is also used by police and other public officials, in determining whether the death should be investigated."

They went on to say that, "on the second page of the death notice the doctor is required to provide the immediate and underlying causes of death (such as HIV) and other relevant information. This is confidential and is sent to the Department of Home Affairs in a sealed envelope. It is not given to the family or any other person."

According to the ALP, the Department of Home Affairs is thus already able to collect statistics on causes of death (including HIV and Aids) without violating the deceased’s right to confidentiality.

"Stating “AIDS” as the cause of death on public death certificates will therefore not in any way improve the collection of statistics on HIV related deaths. It is also a violation of the deceased’s right to confidentiality which can have serious repercussions for surviving family members," the ALP said.

Hearing to continue
On Friday the disciplinary committee of the HPSA ruled not to drop the charges against the pathologist Leon Wagner and to continue the hearing on a future date. Wagner is a former chief pathologist of the Free State who is currently in private practice.

"I cannot allow the SAHPC (SA Health Professions Council) to compel me to lie on death certificates simply so that government can pretend that the Aids pandemic is an epidemic," Wagner said.

He believed his hearing could be a turning point for South Africa and that death certificates offered the most accurate data to compile Aids statistics, Sapa reported. – (Health24)

Aids Law Project

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HIV/Aids Centre

November 2006


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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