By Charles Geshekter

The Citizen SA 16 Sept. 1998

The alarm over AIDS in Africa - "the new Black Plague"- reached a fever pitch at the recent AIDS Conference in Geneva. A closer scrutiny of the facts suggests that it's time to cool down the rhetoric.

What exactly is an "AIDS" case in Africa? What is the scientific basis for claims about HIV prevalence?

Millions of Africans have long suffered from weight loss, chronic diarrhea, fever and persistent coughs. In 1985, western researchers suddenly re-defined these symptoms as a distinct illness (AIDS), declaring they were caused by a sexually transmitted virus (HIV).

Based on clinical symptoms, not laboratory analysis, the definition of "AIDS" in Africa differs decisively from the one used in the U.S. and Europe. By treating the effects of poverty as sexually contagious, AIDS in Africa suddenly seemed as widespread as malaria, dysentery or sleeping sickness.

How can one virus cause 29 different "AIDS "diseases almost entirely among males in Europe and America, but afflict African men and women in nearly equal numbers? What accounts for the African gender distribution of a virus whose transmission requires a thousand heterosexual acts?

Researchers assumed that AIDS in Africa was driven by a sexual promiscuity similar to what produced - in combination with recreational drugs, venereal disease and over-use of antibiotics - an epidemic of immune deficiency among a small sub-culture of urban gay men in the West.

Such assumptions are useless for a continent of 650 million people where no comprehensive sex surveys have been carried out. No one has ever shown that people in Rwanda, Zaire or Kenya - the so-called "AIDS belt" - are more active sexually than people in Nigeria which has reported only 5500 AIDS cases out of a population of 110 million or Cameroon which had 9600 cases out of 12 million.

HIV tests identify antibodies, not the virus itself. And the tests are notoriously unreliable among populations compromised by parasitic infections or anemia caused by malaria. People who suffer from tuberculosis or bouts of dysentery carry many other antibodies, making it impossible to prove which bacteria caused certain symptoms.

A 1994 study in central Africa showed that conventional microbes responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy were so endemic that over 70% of HIV-positive test results were false. This is important to remember every time the media reports 16,000 "new" HIV infections a day.

Dr. Val Turner of Royal Perth Hospital (Australia) explains that Africans who get an "AIDS" diagnosis are considered heterosexual cases simply because they come from a country where heterosexual activity is presumably the mode of transmission. "Knowledge of actual sexual contact," says Turner, "is not a requirement."

With its elements of sex, blood and death, AIDS sells more newspapers than any disease in history. The drumbeat that "safe sex" is the way to prevent AIDS inadvertently frightens many Africans from visiting a clinic for even minor ailments. According to Dr. Chifumbe Chintu, "Africans with treatable medical conditions (such as tuberculosis) who perceive themselves as having HIV infection fail to seek medical attention because they think they have an untreatable disease."

A Tanzanian study showed that simply providing pregnant HIV-positive women with inexpensive multivitamins resulted in healthier babies and a noticeable increase in post-natal immunities. Convinced they were dealing with a viral infection, the mystified researchers conceded that "how the individual vitamins produce these effects was not understood."

While health officials fixate on condom distribution or make evangelistic demands for behavior modification, approximately 55% of sub-Saharan Africans lack access to safe water, 60% have no proper sanitation and over 50 million pre-school children are malnourished.

Having millions of Africans threatened by "AIDS" makes it politically expedient to use the continent for vaccine trials or for distribution of severely toxic drugs like AZT that radically affects the liver and kidneys, causes muscular diseases and destroys red blood cells.

At the Geneva Conference, the AIDS Vaccine Initiative spokesmen lobbied for $500 million "to encourage drug companies to move toward the eventual goal of profiting from AIDS vaccines." When a U.N. panel condemned U.S. safety standards for vaccine tests, calling them a form of "cultural imperialism" that was inappropriate for Africa, Dr. Peter Piot of the UNAIDS Program welcomed such misguided advice as a "shift from older attitudes of paternalism and protectiveness to greater empowerment by developing countries."

The real threats to African lives are famine, rural poverty, migratory labor systems, urban crowding, the collapse of state structures and the sadistic violence of civil wars. When essential services for water, power or transport break down, public sanitation deteriorates and tuberculosis, dysentery and respiratory infections increase.

The weight loss, diarrhea, fever and persistent cough that define AIDS in Africa are found equally among men and women because of environmental risks to which they are regularly exposed. Dr. F.J. Millard, a local physician, described conditions in rural South Africa that produce a rising incidence of "AIDS" symptoms: "the area suffered from neglect during the apartheid years. There is poverty, malnutrition, violence, unemployment and overpopulation."

The best predictors for "AIDS" anywhere in Africa are economic deprivation, malnutrition, poor sanitation and parasitic infections, not extraordinary sexual behavior or antibodies for a virus that has proved difficult to isolate directly.

Journalists should familiarize themselves with the contradictions, anomalies and inconsistencies in the bio-medical dogma about HIV/AIDS. Once they consider the non-contagious explanations for "AIDS" cases in Africa, they can stop the relentless proliferation of terrifying misinformation that equates sexuality with death. *

Prof. Charles Geshekter teaches African History at California State University, Chico.