By Ilham Rawoot
Circumcision is a touchy business. And writing about it has proven to be even touchier, especially when nobody wants to talk about it.
When the KwaZulu-Natal health department decided to go ahead with using the TaraKLamp (a device that strikes me as the penile equivalent of a nail clipper) to circumcise men as part of an HIV-prevention project, a few questions arose.
Firstly, why is the department using a device that has not been approved by the World Health Organisation and which some doctors have warned against citing the higher risk of complications involved compared with standard surgical procedure?
On a deeper note, who is making money out of this device?
Once the Mail & Guardian discovered it was being promoted by a company that didn’t have an office, and that no one had heard of before, we decided to dig a little bit.
We found that no tender process was followed in obtaining the Malaysian-made device even though there are competing versions.
We found that the Zambian man in charge of the company that has the local distribution rights had once been accused — mentioned in a Zambian high court judgement — of dealing in Mandrax, though he was never charged and protests his innocence.
Surely the KZN health department should thank us for our hard work, for helping them make informed decisions that will help find the best option for South Africans. But that’s not what happened.
Instead they called us “disingenuous” for asking for tender documents and expenditure values in relation to the TaraKLamp.
Here’s KZN’s health spokesperson, Chris Maxon: “In the first instance; we wish state that we find it disingenuous for you to ask for these documents without providing reason. These are contract document that are kept to protect their authenticity. We therefore cannot release them with proper procedure being followed and, above all, to a person who is not honest about the reasons for requesting these.”
Even when we explained that the reasons were quite simple — public money is used to pay for these devices and we have a right to know how much is spent and why it is going into the pocket that it is. Obvious, one might say.
This wasn’t a good enough reason for them and they subsequently chose to ignore further requests for information.
When we called the supplier to ask him questions he threatened to take us to court for defamation. We just want to understand things, really.
If people are acting in good faith, then answering questions should be a simple and professional process. But that rarely happens.
The TaraKLamp saga seems to carry some echoes of Virodene, the controversial Aids “cure” that caused a ruckus in the 90s. That case was marked by dodgy science and political meddling from former president Thabo Mbeki and the ANC. The drug was totally rejected by the scientific community.
It seems we don’t learn from history. The decision to use the TaraKLamp seems similarly marked by closed doors and politicking, but the government doesn’t want to acknowledge that. They’d rather cover their ears when probed on new health methods, always wanting to be pioneers and highly advanced in the field, with no room for criticism.
And, as with Virodene, it’s once again only the taxpayers and the men who may suffer complications under the device, that will pay the price.