Reuters 10 Sept. 2001

Johannesburg -- South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has attracted a storm of controversy for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, has stated once again that AIDS is not the biggest killer in the country.

In a letter to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, dated August 6, 2001, and published by Business Day newspaper on Monday, Mbeki said South Africa's biggest killer was external causes and that HIV/AIDS was responsible for only 2.2% of total deaths in South Africa.

The figures that Mbeki quotes were compiled by the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) for 1995.

"I can confirm that this data is on the WHO website,'' said Richard de Luyt, a spokesman in South Africa for UNAIDS, the UN agency that compiles AIDS statistics for the WHO.

"I must stress however that WHO collects such data from national governments,'' he added.

Mbeki's spokesman Bheki Khumalo told Reuters the president's letter to the minister formed part of an on-going debate with the government on health policy.

"Needless to say, these figures will provoke a howl of displeasure and a concerted propaganda campaign among those who have convinced themselves that HIV/AIDS is the single biggest cause of death in our country,'' Mbeki wrote.

"These are the people whose prejudices led them to discover the false reality, among other things, that we are running out of space in our cemeteries as a result of unprecedented deaths caused by HIV/AIDS,'' he added.

The letter is likely to attract further controversy over Mbeki's stance on HIV-AIDS, which affects close to five million South Africans, more than any other country.

Mbeki has acknowledged that the human immunodeficiency virus is a cause of AIDS, but does not accept it is the only cause. He argues that poverty plays a key role in the pandemic that affects more than 25 million Africans.

In an interview broadcast by the BBC last month Mbeki said violence and not AIDS was the biggest killer in South Africa.

He has denied providing state-sponsored life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs to HIV-infected patients on cost and safety grounds and appointed to his own panel on the disease scientists who argue AIDS is caused by recreational drug use.