AFP 24 March 2002

Johannesburg -- Former Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said Sunday South Africa needed to summon up the spirit and determination that defeated apartheid in the battle against AIDS.

Speaking on SABC television, the former archbishop said he supported the rollout of anti-retroviral drugs including the controversial Nevirapine, which he said had an important impact on the prevention of AIDS.

"I would have hoped...that we would invoke the same spirit, the same passion, the same commitment to fight this pandemic as we had when we were fighting against the scourge of apartheid," said Tutu, a veteran of the struggle against white minority rule before democratic elections in 1994.

"We must use all the available information and knowledge ... Please, we really ought to be stopping the controversy about what causes this (AIDS). At the present time what is held conventionally is that AIDS is caused by this virus (HIV) and that these drugs do have an important impact," Tutu said.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has long been under fire for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS in a nation where an estimated 4.7 million people, or one in nine, are HIV-positive and an estimated 1,600 people become infected with the virus every day.

Mbeki's government has been given until March 31 by a Pretoria High Court to provide a comprehensive plan to combat mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

But that same court also gave the government leave to appeal against this decision.

Pretoria is already appealing against the court's earlier ruling, on December 18 last year, that ordered distribution of Nevirapine, which is said to prevent mother-to-child transmission of AIDS.

A leading South African scientist Sunday rebuked the ruling African National Congress' (ANC) policy following its heated attack this week on the use of anti-retrovirals in treating the disease.

Malegapuru Makgoba, the president of the Medical Research Council of South Africa, warned that the ANC's "dissident view" questioning the link between HIV and AIDS could doom government efforts to fight the disease.

"These arguments have been rejected ad nauseum. Wherever they have been rejected there has been successful control of the HIV epidemic and wherever they become part of a debate, there has only been confusion and denial," Makgoba told the Sunday Independent.