SCIENTISTS CALL SOUTH AFRICA'S AIDS POLICY IDIOTIC
By Maggie Fox
Reuters 19 April 2000
Washington -- Frustrated scientists battling the HIV epidemic
denounced South Africa's AIDS policy as idiotic on Wednesday, saying
thousands were dying while politicians argued about causes and cures of
Some called for foreign governments, especially the United States, to
intervene and give the administration of South African President Thabo
Mbeki a talking-to.
Mbeki himself took the debate to a new level by writing a letter to
President Bill Clinton and other heads of state calling the AIDS
epidemic a "uniquely African catastrophe.''
He asserted his government's right to doubt whether HIV causes AIDS, to
question whether lifesaving treatments such as the drug AZT are too
toxic and to resist the "superimposition of Western experience on
"This is fiddling while Rome burns,'' Dr. John Moore, a leading
scientist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, said in
a telephone interview.
"It's tragic that people are having to spend time and effort debating
whether HIV is the cause of AIDS when we should be discussing how to
More than 33 million people around the world are infected with HIV and
70 percent of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. On Tuesday, South
Africa said an estimated 4.2 million of its people, or just under 10
percent of the population, were infected with the human immunodeficiency
Virtually all experts agree that HIV causes AIDS.
But Mbeki has for months been courting two dissident U.S. scientists,
Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick, who deny that HIV causes AIDS. His
government has also refused to make AZT available in public clinics,
saying it is toxic even though studies have shown its use can protect
the babies of HIV-infected mothers.
"If South Africa declares that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, what
impact is that going to have on the rest of the world?'' asked Moore.
Mark Lurie, an epidemiologist studying the spread of HIV in KwaZulu-
Natal, the province worst hit by HIV, said he was exasperated by the
"In this district, one out of three women who are pregnant is HIV-
positive,'' he said in a telephone interview. "I simply don't have time
for arguments that HIV doesn't cause AIDS.''
But Lurie, who has joined other scientists in trying to persuade the
South African government to see the danger of defying years of solid
scientific research, said he has come under pressure to be quiet.
"I think the concern is if you want to influence policy, then don't
alienate policymakers,'' he said. "My answer to that is if policymakers
are making idiotic decisions unrelated to science, it is our duty to
Lurie said he hoped Mbeki's letter would open an avenue for other
governments to step in. "It may well make people more stubborn but I
think it's still a good thing to do,'' he said.
But he and Moore expressed doubts that diplomats would place enough
pressure on Mbeki. "U.S. officials are not going to start berating a
foreign head of state,'' Moore said.
He said he hoped a planned visit by Mbeki in May to Washington would
create an opportunity for quiet diplomacy.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed the White House had
received Mbeki's letter but indicated that a gentle approach was indeed
"What I can say about that is that the South African government clearly
grasps the depths of the problem of AIDS in South Africa and throughout
the continent and is aggressively working to address the situation,'' he
"I think that the African governments are taking an approach that they
feel is in their best interests and the best response to the particular
situation in Africa and that's the right thing to do,'' he added.