MBEKI OPENS CONTROVERSIAL AIDS PANEL
Agence France Presse 6 May 2000
Pretoria -- South African President Thabo Mbeki opened a
controversial panel seeking new solutions to AIDS Saturday by warning that the
fatal disease was a "catastrophe" in Africa.
The panel includes dissident scientists who argue that AIDS is caused in
Third World countries by such problems as poor hygiene and deny that it follows
the HIV virus.
They are sitting alongside such luminaries as French scientist Luc
Montagnier, the discoverer of the HIV virus which mainstream medical circles
are convinced is the precursor to AIDS.
Mbeki, who has created consternation here by giving the dissidents a
platform for what are widely considered to be discredited theories, declared
that the search for solutions could not be based on what some considered
"biblical absolute truth."
"We look for an answer because all the information that has been
communicated is in reality that we are faced with a catastrophe," he said.
"We can't respond to a catastrophe only by saying 'I will do what is
The panel, set up at Mbeki's behest, comprises 33 scientists from 14
countries, more or less evenly balanced between mainstream scientists and
dissidents such as Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick of the United States and
South African Sam Mhlongo, who argue that the root causes in Africa and other
developing regions of immune deficiency, symptomatic of AIDS, is poverty,
malnutrition, poor hygiene and local diseases.
Mbeki said he had been surprised by the uproar about his quest to have the
causes of AIDS reviewed, adding that criticism by eminent scientists had at
times made it difficult for him to think he was not a fool.
"But I'm no longer so sure about that, given that so many eminent people
responded to the invitation of 'a fool' to come to this important meeting," he
The press and political opposition here have likened Mbeki's flirtation with
the dissidents theories to listening to "flatearthists," and the opposition
Democratic Party declared the panel would find no fresh answers because the
dissidents would drag the debate back to square one.
"It will be a tired rerun of longextinct speculations," it said.
"Rather than learning from his mistakes, he seems intent on ensuring that
each new enterprise is more farcical than the rest. The president's
irresponsibility in this matter verges on the criminal."
The New National Party, which ruled under apartheid, said the government had
allowed itself to "be manipulated by fringe frantics and nut cases" and was
wasting time and money.
Mbeki pointed out that of the 5.6 million people who contracted HIV last
year, 3.8 million lived in subSaharan Africa.
In South Africa alone, 4.2 million people more than one in 10 were
HIVpositive at the end of 1999, according to government figures.
"As Africans we want to respond to HIV/AIDS in a manner that is effective,"
One of the problems the panel is facing is the enormous cost of AIDS
treatment on a continent where the average annual income is around 200 dollars.
Mbeki has denounced the drug AZT, and forbidden its prescription by the
state for pregnant HIVpositive women, partly on grounds of cost, but also
arguing that it poses health risks.
The panel is holding discussions this weekend in a Pretoria hotel, and will
continue them by Internet for six to eight weeks, then meet again in South
Africa in July shortly before the 13th world conference on AIDS, to be held in
Durban, on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast.