SOUTH AFRICA AND THE AIDS DISASTER
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.