By Emelia Sithole

Reuters 4 October 2000

Johannesburg -- A senior official of South Africa's ruling African National Congress stoked more controversy over AIDS on Wednesday by backing President Thabo Mbeki's view that the disease could not be caused by a single virus.

In a statement published in the Business Day newspaper, Smuts Ngonyama, head of Mbeki's office at the ANC, challenged a reporter who had urged the government to admit unequivocally that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), to produce evidence to show that the virus was the sole cause of AIDS.

"Among other things, what the president is challenging is the assertion that AID--AIDS without "S''--is the exclusive fault of a single virus,'' Ngonyama said.

"He is saying that he does not believe that immune deficiency can be acquired--the "A'' in AIDS--from a single cause, the HI virus,'' he said.

Ngonyama's statement comes after an appeal by the country's doctors for an end to the debate which they said was confusing people who should be focusing on fighting AIDS which is spreading faster in South Africa than anywhere else on earth.

The South African Medical Association (SAMA) said on Tuesday it was concerned at the growing number of people who were now questioning the existence of HIV after Mbeki questioned the causal link between it and AIDS.

"The point we want to raise is that at this point in time there shouldn't really be discussion about whether HIV causes AIDS,'' SAMA chairman Zolile Mlisana said.

Doctors say HIV/AIDS link scientific fact

"Whether HIV causes AIDS or not is not a matter of speculation, it's a question of scientific fact. As professionals and scientists we want to make that statement very clear. It's our responsibility to do so,'' Mlisana told Reuters.

Mbeki has said he will not accept the causal link between HIV and AIDS unless it is proven anew by an international panel that he has appointed to test the link.

Ngonyama said the controversy had arisen because Mbeki had said that science should provide answers to questions posed by "eminent (dissident) scientists who question this conventional wisdom.''

"The president's international advisory panel on AIDS is working precisely to consider the divergent scientific opinions on this matter,'' he said.

In a statement strongly contested by doctors, Mbeki told parliament a week ago that a virus could not cause a syndrome.

AIDS activists and doctors have slammed the president's stance, saying it undermined the country's efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

One in 10 South Africans are infected with HIV and the numbers swell daily by 1,700.

Last week, former President Nelson Mandela also repudiated his successor's stance on the issue, saying HIV was the primary cause of the disease that threatens to kill millions of South Africans.

Mandela told the Independent Group newspapers that he would respect the "dominant opinion which prevails throughout the world'' that HIV causes AIDS until he was shown conclusive and scientific proof that this was wrong.