Reuters 12 July 2000

AIDS dissidents acclaimed President Thabo Mbeki as their hero on Wednesday after he defended the rights of all scientists to be heard in a debate on the disease.

Mbeki has courted controversy by appointing so-called dissidents - some of who deny that HIV leads to AIDS - to his own advisory panel on the disease. Mbeki again defended his decision to open the AIDS debate to dissidents, saying on Tuesday it was an issue of free speech that took on special significance in the context of the country's apartheid history.

Mbeki's opening speech at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban provoked anger among many activists, health experts and leading scientists when he ducked the issue of the link between HIV and AIDS. Top AIDS researcher David Ho urged Mbeki to stop the debate, or find that his legacy was that he had allowed millions to die.

But the small group of dissidents attending the conference gave their full backing to Mbeki. Charles Geshekter, a scientist on Mbeki's panel, said estimates of nearly 34 million people living with HIV-AIDS were hugely exaggerated and that only a small fraction were actually dying of AIDS. "AIDS in Africa has become a catch-all word. A name for a series of clinical symptoms for malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery," he told reporters.

Major outbreaks of disease, including AIDS, were fuelled by massive income disparities related to South Africa's modern history, including apartheid, he said.

Virtually all leading scientists say that HIV causes AIDS and is spread through sexual contact or blood use. Leading bodies such as UNAIDS, the United Nations AIDS programme, estimate that nearly 35 million people are living with the disease which has ravaged large parts of Africa and Asia.

"Mbeki should be considered a hero for bringing these issues to the forefront," said Lynn Gannett, a former data manager for trials of the drug. Gannett supported Mbeki's scepticism about the efficacy of the widely used drug AZT, and believed it should not be used. The government has denied AZT to pregnant women and rape victims on cost grounds.