By Patricia Reaney

Reuters 10 April 2000

London -- The head of a global group spearheading a drive to find a vaccine against the HIV virus on Monday criticised calls for a boycott of an international AIDS conference to be held in South Africa in July.

Seth Berkley, president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), described the calls for a boycott of the XIII International AIDS conference as irresponsible and wrong.

Scientists are considering to stay away from the meeting after South Africa said it planned to include researchers who question whether HIV causes AIDS in a government panel of international experts on the deadly disease.

Critics fear that the scientists' controversial views will be given credibility if they are included and delay efforts to curb the spread of AIDS in South Africa. An estimated 10 percent of the country's 40 million people are HIV-positive.

"For the first time in history, conference organisers have gone out of their way to ensure that an international conference is firmly rooted in the issues that affect developing countries,'' Berkley said in a statement released in London.

Access to drugs, strategies for preventing mother-to-child transmission and the development of a safe, affordable vaccine to curb the spread of HIV in the developing world are set to top the agenda at the meeting, to be held in Durban from July 9-14.

"This is not the time to undercut efforts to address developing country issues, particularly because the next two international conferences are scheduled to be held in industrialised countries,'' Berkley added.


South African President Thabo Mbeki has also questioned the effectiveness of the anti-AIDS drug AZT in preventing infections or reducing the transmission of the virus from mother-to-child.

He is not allowing HIV positive women in South Africa to be given AZT because of the drug's high cost.

"People are thinking of boycotting the conference because of all of these issues. This (the conference) is a chance to get all of these issues out in the open,'' an spokeswoman for New-York based IAVI said in a telephone interview.

A South African newspaper quoted a Mbeki spokesperson as saying that the scientists who are considering boycotting the conference were "utterly stupid'' and "welcome to stay away.''

Berkley said the meeting would provide an unparalleled opportunity to share information and shed light on critical questions about the disease that has claimed 16 million lives since the epidemic started in the early 1980s.

The latest statistics on AIDS show that sub-Saharan Africa is the global epicentre of the epidemic and that for the first time women infected with HIV outnumber men.

"We believe this meeting can advance efforts to ensure scientific progress that truly benefits all the people of the world,'' he said.

IAVI was founded in 1996 to ensure the development of safe, effective preventive HIV vaccines for use throughout the world. It receives sponsorship from the World Bank, business and private donors.