By Allan Seccombe

Reuters 10 Sept 2000

Johannesburg -- South African President Thabo Mbeki clung to his much criticised stance of denying a direct link between HIV and AIDS in an interview with Time magazine.

"No, I am saying that you cannot attribute immune deficiency soley and exclusively to a virus,'' Mbeki said in response to a question whether he was prepared to acknowledge there was a link between the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

A majority of scientists and doctors around the world say HIV causes AIDS and millions of dollars are being spent in trying to find a cure for the disease which has infected 35 million people and has killed almost 19 million.

Mbeki incurred the wrath of the world's AIDS experts in July during an international conference attended by 12,000 delegates when he failed to acknowledge the link between HIV and AIDS.

Mbeki said in the interview published on Time's website ( that factors like poverty, poor nutrition, contaminated water and other diseases including sexually transmitted diseases contributed to immune deficiency.

"Now it is perfectly possible that among those things is a particular virus. But the notion that immune deficiency is only acquired from a single virus cannot be sustained,'' he said.

"The problem is that once you say immune deficiency is acquired from that virus your response will be anti-retroviral drugs,'' he added.

Mbeki's stance called "scary''

A coalition of South African anti-AIDS groups called the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has begun legal action to force the government to provide the nevirapine drug to prevent pregnant mothers passing the virus to their babies.

"To try and attribute immune deficiency to poverty the way Mbeki does is entirely wrong and it is scary that in this interview he does not seem to be prepared to admit squarely that there is such a thing as HIV,'' TAC head Mark Heywood told the Sunday Independent newspaper.

Mbeki's stance has also angered the powerful unions allied to the ruling African National Congress for its refusal to provide anti-AIDS drugs to sufferers.

The 1.8 million strong Congress of South African Unions (COSATU) said where treatment was affordable the government should urgently provide it and the federation's president, Willie Madisha, said there was no doubt HIV caused AIDS.

Some 4.2 million South Africans out of a population of 43 million have been killed in the epidemic, which is on course to infect a total of nearly eight million more by the end of the decade.

The government has turned down a free offer by Boehringer Ingelheim, a German company that makes nevirapine, on the grounds that it lacked the infrastructure to effectively monitor a programme to administer the drug.

Mbeki also defended his decision to appoint so-called "AIDS dissidents'' who doubt HIV exists or destroys the human immune system to an advisory panel, saying it would help clear up the question of what really caused AIDS.

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

"If the scientists come back and say this virus is part of the variety of things from which people acquire immune deficiency, I have no problem with that,'' Mbeki said.