By Martin Williams

The Citizen 7 March 2000

Exhilarating. That's how I describe what's happened since The Citizen published its first opinion piece by an AIDS dissident in September 1998.

Now President Mbeki is lobbying for an international panel publicly to debate some common beliefs: 1. AIDS is contagious. 2. AIDS is sexually transmitted. 3. HIV causes AIDS. 4. HIV drugs promote life.

This has been greeted with outrage by the PAC's Dr Costa Gazi and the DP's Mrs Sandy Kalya. I wonder whether they have read the challenging views of eminent scientists, including two Nobel prizewinners. Mbeki recently excoriated one of our leading academics who had not read up on the subject.

Mrs Kalya probably doesn't even read The Citizen. She says Mbeki's stance on AZT is "based on 'court cases' which do not exist". In fact we published details of various cases last year.This is not the place to rehash the argument that AZT kills. Several Citizen pages have been devoted to Anthony Brink's opus on the topic. It was also in this paper that Charles Geshekter said poverty, rather than sex practices, might underly many of the symptoms of AIDS in Africa.

People not familiar with the arguments pass emotive judgments on Mbeki, who has taken the trouble to try to understand. Instead of engaging in point-by-point debate, Mrs Kalya talks of "maverick scientists with bizarre interpretations of verified and widely accepted research". Discussion should not be stifled on the basis that opinions are widely accepted. That is neither scientific nor intellectually honest. How can you close a debate if you have not read to understand the issues for yourself?

Such an approach suggests closed-mindedness. Mbeki, to his credit, is being open-minded without necessarily accepting any of the dissident positions. He is entertaining the possibility that the ideas might have merit. Those who challenge orthodoxy are amenable to discussion while conventional wisdom wants to shut the door. What is the harm in hearing all sides?

Yes, matters of life and death are involved. But this does not mean that withholding AZT is worse than dishing it out. Those who genuinely believe AZT kills also have a case.

People such as Dr Gazi and Mrs Kalya will have to accept that the debate is far from over. And the temperature will rise before July's International AIDS 2000 conference in Durban.