Intellectuals spread message of denial

By Neely Tucker

San Diego Union Tribune 13 Aug. 1999

HARARE, Zimbabwe ó It is estimated that some 11.5 million Africans have died of AIDS and that at least 21 million Africans are HIV-positive. But there is a movement of African intellectuals that say that AIDS does not exist and Africans should ignore Western advice about protecting themselves from it.

Conspiracy theories about AIDS did not originate in Africa, but they found fertile ground there. Some people believe that if AIDS does not exist, it was sowed by the United States as a way to kill Africans.

Sociologists say such distrust is understandable, considering the horrors of Western colonialism and reports that South Africaís apartheid government inoculated blacks with poisons in biological warfare tests.

It has become a mission for Baffour Ankomh, the publisher of one of Africaís most respected newsmagazines, to convince his readers that there is no such thing as AIDS and that millions of Africans arenít dying of it.

"Africa is the target of the world AIDS cartel. They want to pin it on us, to destroy us with it," said Ankomah, a Ghanaian who publishes the New African, a glossy, London-based magazine that circulates to 32,000 well-heeled readers in 40 countries. "What we call AIDS is actually U.S. biological warfare gone wrong."

The New Africanís articles are reprinted in magazines across the continent, and Ankomahís campaign is one of the most high pro-files signs that many Africans donít believe their homeland is being devastated by the sexually transmitted disease. The magazineís editorials urge people to ignore health warnings and to not wear condoms.

AIDS workers say this denial, accompanied by a paralyzing fatalism, is by far the biggest obstacle to their work.

"I fear weíre moving from a private, intimate denial of AIDS to a professional denial, one that tries to confuse things in so-called technical jargon," said El Hadj Sy, a Senegalese sociologist who is director of the U.N. AIDS Program for Central and Southern Africa. "People are desperate to find something to blame rather than their own behavior. They want to believe that something this evil must be inflicted upon our continent by outsiders."

Enormous Death Toll

Millions of lives are at stake because the disease, for which there is no cure, is still picking up speed in almost all of sub-Africa, with a death toll comparable to that of the Holocaust.

The Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization estimated late in 1998 that 11.5 million sub-Saharan Africans have died of the disease, more than 80 percent of the world's AIDS death toll. In the 1998 report, the United Nations estimated that 23 million people in sub-Sahara Africa were HIV-positive, representing 70 percent of such cases worldwide.

AIDS conspiracy and denial theories have found fertile ground in sub-Saharan Africa in part because the issue can be made to sound political rather than medical. And millions of Africans have long memories of Western evils: slavery, colonial exploitation, Cold War proxy battles and biological warfare tests carried out by the white-minority regimes.

Ankomah says AIDS is the latest of these, a money-making hoax carried out by the United Nations at Africaís expense. He disputes statistics on the AIDS death toll, which he says are grossly inflated.

"Itís heartbreaking the way we Africans accept everything the West and the United Nations say about how Africa is the cradle of AIDS, the worst hit place by AIDS," he said.

But if AIDS is killing people, he said, it didnít originate in Africa and is a plot by Western governments to depopulate the continent. Ankomah proudly shows a 1970 Pentagon document ordering research into a virus that could wear down peopleís immune systems. He says that was the origin of AIDS.

He isnít alone in believing AIDS is a sinister plot.

After Zimbabwean Vice President Joshua Nkomoís son died of AIDS in April 1996, he stood over his sonís grave and bitterly declared the disease was "harvested by whites to obliterate blacks. Ö (But) it backfired and they, too, are dying of it, but still they have the knowledge of its origins and how it can be cured. But they just do not want to share that knowledge."

Conspiracy Theories Abound

Representatives of many demographics groups, including African-Americans and gay white men in the United States, have voiced concern that AIDS might be a conspiracy to destroy them. The AIDS-is-a-myth guru is Peter Duesberg, a German-born molecular biologist at the University of California Berkeley, whose book "Inventing the AIDS Myth" [no mistake] is the bible of conspiracy theorists.

Duesbergís theory, which Ankoman quotes as gospel, is that Western scientists prematurely concluded that HIV causes AIDS. Thatís wrong, Duesberg insists, but when billions of dollars became available to study the disease, scientists jumped on the bandwagon and have been heading in the wrong direction ever since.

Another weapon in the conspiracy-theory arsenal is the difficulty of obtaining exact numbers of AIDS deaths. Because HIV and AIDS cause an immune-system breakdown, rather than a specific illness, counting fatalities is difficult.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where abject poverty makes collecting precise medical data impossible, U.N. workers compute the number of HIV cases from HIV-positive pregnant women who visit health clinics. The number is then extrapolated to complex mathematical models to estimate the death toll.

The United Nations and the World Health Organization, using different methods, reached almost exactly the same estimates.

To Ankomah and millions of other Africans, there is plenty of room for numerical mischief.

"Why should Africa suffer all the humiliation about AIDS as unreliable figures are peddled as truth? What has Africa done to deserve this? African writer John Kamau asked in a February column in the New African. "We are being told that unless we change our behavior, AIDS will wipe us out. Ö We are being blinded with phony statistics saying that Africa is facing a crisis."

Racism Believed

Many Africans also have an emotional reaction to the currently accepted theory that AIDS originated in the blood of chimpanzees in central Africa, probably in eastern Zaire in the late 1970s, and jumped to Africans. To many Africans, the theory sounds like old racist propaganda that linked black people and chimpanzees.

"If the research found that HIV came from cows, sheep or goats, I think Africans would accept it like any other scientific study," said Sy, the Senegalese U.N. AIDS officer. "But for Africans, thereís a psychological reaction to being mentioned in the same sentence with a chimpanzee. So when you say that millions of Africans are dying of a disease that originated in a chimpanzee, it can sound like another racist lie, even to very intelligent people."

U.N. officials, particularly white workers, are so sensitive to the African reaction to AIDS that, although they privately express outrage at the conspiracy theories, they temper their remarks publicly.

"Itís important we donít just dismiss these theories as rantings in Africa, because many of the problems they point out have valid roots," says Lisa Jacob, spokeswoman for the U.N. AIDS Program, headquartered in Geneva. "Their theories are factually wrong, but there are strong cultural and historical reasons that would lead reasonable people to believe them."