BABIES GIVE LIE TO AFRICAN AIDS
By Neville Hodgkinson, Nairobi
The Sunday Times (London) 29 August 1993
Father Angelo d'Agostino is puzzled. He sits at the heart of Africa's alleged
AIDS epidemic with a hospital full of HIV-positive children who, health experts
say, are condemned to die. Except that they are very much alive.
As a result, d'Agostini, in common with growing numbers of scientists and doctors
around the world, is beginning to question whether HIV really is the killer it has
been made out to be. He, like them, suspects that many "AIDS" cases are really old
diseases given a new name and that people who test HIV-positive are not, as most
have been led to believe, the victims of a new, inevitably lethal disease.
As founder of the Nyumbani hospice for abandoned and orphaned HIV-positive
children in Nairobi, Kenya, he had expected to see much disease and death. But his
so-called "AIDS babies" are confounding all predictions.
A year has passed since the home opened and only one of his first 45 children has
been lost an ailing six-week-old infant who had to return to hospital almost
immediately and died two weeks later. The rest, who are aged up to six years, are
thriving and Nyumbani, which means "at home", teems with life and laughter.
Yet elsewhere in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World
Health Organisation (WHO), tens of thousands of children are dying because of
HIV, usually in their first year. Its regional office in Brazzaville says infant
mortality has increased so much because of AIDS that gains made in child-survival
programmes of recent years are being eroded. WHO says the virus has infected 8m
Africans and will be killing 500,000 a year by the end of the century.
But if HIV is causing such havoc elsewhere, why is it apparently proving so
innocent in the children of Nyumbani?
D'Agostino, 67, is a former surgeon who trained as a Jesuit priest and became a
professor of psychiatry in Washington before going to Africa 10 years ago. "I'm a
physician and I bought the theory that HIV is the cause of AIDS," he said. Now he
is surrounded by smiling faces that cast huge doubts over it.
"It is surprising. We expected more deaths, and a lot more serious illness.
According to most predictions, the children should have died within two to three
months of coming to us. Instead, we have now had to set up a nursery school and
I'm planning to negotiate their entry into primary school.
"I had also been preparing to establish group therapy for the mothers to deal with
their grief at the loss of the children. Instead, the only losses the hospice has are
happy ones: some of the children become HIV-negative, and are taken back by
relatives or ordinary children's homes."
Even those who persistently test positive are staying well. "I don't have any
explanation for it," d'Agostino said. "Will they be alive this time next year? I have
no reason to doubt it; they are healthy."
What d'Agostini's hospice provides is very basic care. "They are very sick when
they come to us. But as a result of their care here they put on weight, recover from
their infections and thrive. Hygiene is excellent. Nutrition is very good. They are
All this is in contrast to the way most children diagnosed as HIV-positive are
treated. "People think a positive test means no hope, so the children are relegated
to the back wards of hospitals," d'Agostino said. Abandoned by their HIV-positive
mothers, the children are killed by multiple infections, malnutrition and misery
rather than by AIDS.
At Nyumbani, most of the hands-on work with the children is done by women,
usually single mothers, who are quick to bond with the babies in their care. "They
have no money and no husband, but they have been mothers that is their big
Most important to the babies' survival, according to Sister Mary Owens,
d'Agostino's assistant, is a big dose of "TLC" tender loving care. "Their whole
experience in the home is one that makes them happy children."
Some of the babies become HIV-negative after a few months. The usual
explanation for this is that they were never truly virus-infected, but instead inherited
their mother's antibodies to HIV, which fade with time. But mothers, too, are being
D'Agostino tells of one woman who turned up with her sick baby, begging to be
allowed to work for the hospice in return for care for the child. "She had been to
hospital seeking treatment for the baby, and they found among other things that it
was HIV-positive as well. The baby's grandmother threw both of them out of her
"We took them in, and three to four months later sent the baby for another test. It
was negative. The mother was delighted. The grandmother took them back. The
mother kept working for us and some months later, when she was assigned to go
with another child who was to be tested, she asked if she could have a test at the
same time and lo and behold, she was negative too."
The experience at Nyumbani flies in the face of the coventional theories about the
history of AIDS in Africa. Dr Robert Gallo announced in 1984 that HIV, a newly
discovered virus, had been identified as the cause of the immune system
breakdown devastating homosexual communities in the United States and Europe.
Western doctors invaded Africa with HIV testing kits and computers to map the
extent to which people were infected there.
Virus-hunters did succeed in finding large numbers of positive test results, and as
far back as 1986 there were said to be 5m HIV-infected people on the continent.
Lurid predictions followed, such as one newspaper claim that within 10 years AIDS
would leave "vast areas of now-populated land devoid of a single living person".
The tests that led to those estimates are now admitted to have been unreliable,
producing a high proportion of false positive results. Newer tests are said to be
more accurate, but according to a recent review in the journal Bio/Technology,
none has yet been scientifically validated.
The article showed that multiple, non-specific assaults on the immune system,
which are extremely common in Africa as a result of poverty, prostitution and the
breakdown of medical and social services, may be causing millions to test positive
when they are not infected with HIV.
Encouraged by WHO-funded units and numerous non-governmental organisations
involved in the fight against AIDS in Africa, doctors are reporting growing numbers
of AIDS cases. But researchers have not established the extent to which these are
genuinely the result of a new virus, as opposed to a consequence of an
intensification in long-established threats to health.
Observers say poverty has driven millions of women into prostitution. Young
African males have also been drawn into the trade. "AIDS" deaths are common
among these prostitutes, especially when treatment of the resulting repeated
infections is either absent or inadequate. Those whose immune systems collapse, as
well as those who harbour a cocktail of infections, can become lethally infective.
However, a huge gap remains between this widely acknowledged increase in threats
to health associated with prostitutes and their contacts, and the apocalyptic vision
of Africa's future espoused by WHO on the basis of its HIV statistics.
As well as using a test that may be useless, these statistics are based on small and
often inadequate population samples. Dr Hedvig Pelle, WHO co-ordinator for the
Kenya National AIDS Control Programme, said: "AIDS is there. No doubt about it.
And it is widespread and increasing. My colleagues in the other countries can tell
you the same." But she added: "If you come with this postulate that there are a lot
of false HIV-positives, it is very difficult to tell."
Political factors appear to play a part in determining whether a country has a major
AIDS problem or not. Kenya lost an estimated £ 200m in desperately needed
foreign currency in November 1991, when the industrialised world decided to try to
force political and economic reform on the country by cutting aid. A recent crisis
announcement on AIDS by the country's health minister is seen within the
international aid community as an attempt to win back donor sympathy and funds,
according to the journal Africa Confidential.
The announcement followed a warning by WHO-sponsored researchers that Kenya
alone has an estimated 1m HIV-positive cases, and a cumulative total of 120,000
AIDS victims since the first case was diagnosed in 1985. "A far-from-veiled theory
in circulation says figures which show AIDS spiralling out of control have been
massaged to extract sympathy," the journal said.
If the HIV theory of AIDS turns out to be flawed, scientists may prove to have
done Africans, more than any other people, a huge injustice. Propaganda on the
spread of AIDS has discouraged investment, increased poverty and cast a new
shadow of fear into the hearts of a people long besieged by health and social