AIDS 'DISSIDENTS' PRAISE MBEKI
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
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.