By JeanClaude Boksenbaum

Agence France Presse 2 April 2000

A decision by President Thabo Mbeki to include dissident scientists on a panel of experts studying measures to counter AIDS is provoking angry debate in South Africa, a country where nine percent of the population 3.6 million people are HIVpositive.

The "dissidents" deny any link between HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) HIV) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana justified last week the setting up of the commission by the need to "reinvigorate" the search for a solution to AIDS.

"That is why we are putting an international panel together to reevaluate what we know," he said.

AntiAIDS militants, doctors and editorial writers charge that the panel will create confusion by giving a platform to scientists espousing theories rejected several years ago by mainstream experts.

The government provoked sharp and widespread criticism last October in refusing to provide the drug AZT to HIVpositive pregnant women, despite its use in many other countries to prevent infection of the foetus.

Official figures show that 22.8 percent of pregnant women tested positive for HIV in South Africa in 1998.

Mbeki maintained that apart from the high cost the state would have to bear to provide AZT, it could be dangerous for the women's and babies' health.

Opposition to Mbeki's policies came to a head at the end of March when a number of eminent personalities sent a letter to him pointing out the consensus in mainstream medicine on the link between HIV and AIDS, and urging that he reverse his decision on AZT for pregnant women.

Signatories included Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron, himself HIVpositive, Cape Town Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, and Jerry Coovadia, who is chairing a preparatory committee organising the next world AIDS conference, due to take place in the South African east coast city of Durban in July.

In his reply, Mbeko said: "I am taken aback by the determination of many people in our country to sacrifice all intellectual integrity to act as salespersons of the products of one pharmaceutical company" a reference to the British firm Glaxo Wellcome, which manufactures AZT.

The president also claimed that "an entire regiment of eminent 'dissident' scientists" had been "wiped out from the public view."

South African professor Sam Mhlongo, who supports the claims by leading dissidents Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick of the United States that AIDS is essentially caused in developing countries by malnutrition and poor hygiene, accepted an invitation last week to sit on the experts' panel.

Mbeki's decisions have exasperated Malegapuru Makgoba, the head of the South African Medical Research Council, who denounced the establishment of the panel as a "national scandal".

"Somebody here has to decide that the dissident group is wrong or right, and the only way you make this decision is if the dissidents have ever provided a theory or hypothesis that is testable. The answer is no," he said.

"In science you are either right or wrong. If politicians are seeking consensus among scientists, that's the wrong approach."