President Mbeki Opens AIDS Conference

Reuters 9 July 2000

Durban -- South African President Thabo Mbeki Sunday opened Africa's biggest AIDS conference, saying poverty and not AIDS was the most dangerous threat to the continent's peoples.

In his address to the 13th International AIDS Conference, Mbeki failed to explicitly say that HIV causes AIDS but he did say his government remained committed to fighting the disease.

Mbeki has courted international controversy by appointing so-called "AIDS dissidents," some of whom doubt that HIV exists or that it causes AIDS, to a presidential panel.

"The world's biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill health and suffering across the globe, including South Africa, is extreme poverty," Mbeki told a stadium audience.

"As I listened and heard the whole story about our own country, it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus," Mbeki said in a speech drawing heavily on a 1995 study by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Mbeki also used his address to staunchly defend his right as South African president to appoint members of his own choosing to the advisory panel and for all scientists to be heard.

"I believe that we should speak to one another honestly and frankly with sufficient tolerance to respect everybody's point of view with sufficient tolerance to allow all voices to be heard," Mbeki said.

"Some in our common world consider the questions I and the rest of our government have raised about the HIV-AIDS issue... as akin to grave criminal and genocidal misconduct," Mbeki said.

Mbeki's panel has agreed to carry out tests to validate the widely used screening test for HIV and will report back to the president by the end of this year.

Fight against AIDS goes on

Mbeki said the government remained committed to fighting HIV-AIDS through preventive measures and poverty reduction programs.

This included contributing to the international research into antiretroviral therapies and efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine.

"There is no substance to the allegation that there is hesitation on the part of our government to confront the challenge of HIV-AIDS.

"However we remain convinced of the need for us to better understand the essence of what would constitute a comprehensive response in a context such as ours which is characterized by the high levels of poverty and disease," Mbeki said.

The six-day conference, intended to focus on how the developed world and its rich drug firms could help the AIDS pandemic in Africa and other developing countries, has been overshadowed by the controversy over Mbeki's stance on HIV-AIDS.

Mbeki told assembled international delegates that they would be unable to appreciate the continent's poverty because of their busy conference schedule.

"You will not see the South African world of the poverty of which the WHO spoke, in which AIDS thrives -- a partner with poverty, suffering, social disadvantage and inequity," Mbeki said.

Some 24.5 million Africans are living with HIV-AIDS from a total world population of 34.3 million, according to the United Nations AIDS program.