Chicago Tribune 23 May 2000

There are times when leaders must show the courage of their convictions. But in the case of South African President Thabo Mbeki, the consequences of his maverick convictions regarding the AIDS pandemic, and how to handle it, could well be a matter of life and death.

Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president last year, joined President Clinton Monday at the White House for his first state visit. The two, quite appropriately, cemented mutual ties and talked about trade and investment opportunities between their nations, as well as how to quell the chaos unfolding across Africa.

But what ought to be dominating coverage of this visitand Clinton should lead the chorus on thisis Mbeki's curious challenge to prevailing scientific views about what causes AIDS, the scourge that U.S. intelligence predicts could one day kill a quarter of South Africa's 40 million inhabitants. Across subSaharan Africa, some 34 million people have already been infected with HIV, and 11 million of those have diedsome 83 percent of the worldwide death toll from the disease.

Incredibly, however, Mbeki last month sent a fivepage letter to Clinton arguing that his country had to chart its own course in dealing with AIDSincluding consulting dissident scientists who reject the view that the HIV virus causes AIDS. In the letter, Mbeki compared the scientific backlash against such dissidentsincluding Berkeley professors Peter Duesberg and David Rasnickto "medieval bookburning."

But he didn't stop there. Mbeki has set up an AIDS advisory board more than half of whose 33 members are considered international medical heretics like Duesberg and Rasnick. Many experts understandably see the panel as sowing confusion that is undermining desperate medical efforts to save lives in South Africa.

Last year, Mbeki also touched off controversy by questioning the safety of the standard antiAIDS drug AZT, which the South African government has declined to distribute to pregnant women despite studies indicating it can help prevent transmission of the virus to their newborns.

Mbeki's defenders insist that his stance has actually focused more attention on the fight against AIDS, and that's a good thing. Mbeki insists he hasn't taken the position of the dissidents but has merely afforded them a hearing, and he points out health care services have not diminished because of his stand.

Still, with all the horrors of AIDS ravaging Africa, with all the confusion and stigma surrounding the disease, with all the misinformation coming from traditional healers about how to avoid it or cure it, the last thing Mbeki should be doing is sending mixed signals about what this plague is and where it comes.