By Steven Swindells

Reuters 6 May 2000

Pretoria -- South Africa's AIDS advisory panel began work on Saturday amid a storm of controversy over the inclusion on it of scientists who doubt that the deadly disease is caused by the HIV virus.

The inclusion of American scientists Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick, who deny a causal link between HIV and AIDS, has raised protest outside and inside South Africa where one person in 10 suffers from HIV-AIDS and deaths are projected to explode this decade.

South African President Thabo Mbeki defended the appointment of unorthodox scientists to his 33-member AIDS advisory panel despite widespread criticism that reopening the debate over the cause of AIDS will only waste time in the fight to stop millions from dying.

"We are faced with a catastrophe. You can't respond to a catastrophe merely by saying 'I will do what is routine' respond to a catastrophe in a way that recognises the fact you are facing a catastrophe,'' Mbeki told the panel.

Mbeki, who has already encountered outrage over his denial of the anti-AIDS drug AZT to pregnant women and rape victims, said unanswered questions remained over how AIDS spread amongst heterosexuals in Africa in contrast to homosexuals, bisexuals and drug users in the West and how best to fight the disease.

"I don't know of any science that has a cut-off year. I do not imagine that science constitutes biblical absolute truths,'' Mbeki said.

Mbeki and his ministers have compared criticism of his decision to hear the dissidents to the Spanish Inquisition and the tyranny of the apartheid regime that ruled South Africa for more than four decades.

Virtually all experts agree that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) causes AIDS and are alarmed that the so-called dissident view that AIDS is caused by poverty, malnutrition and poor sanitation and not HIV could be adopted as public policy by Mbeki.

Dave Scondras, an orthodox scientist on the panel meeting in Pretoria, said that Mbeki had to accept scientific studies.

"The panel should allow the President to move on and get beyond this...People who deny HIV have never treated AIDS, had AIDS patients or gone to the funerals of friends with AIDS,'' Scondras told reporters.


The challenge facing scientists on the panel, such as AIDS research pioneer Luc Montagnier, came from Duesberg who said that that there was no sign of a new epidemic in South Africa caused by AIDS.

"There is no clear evidence of a new epidemic,'' Duesberg told Reuters before the panel sat for the first time.

Duesberg said South Africa's birthrate was higher than ever, its infant mortality had not gone up, deaths were not caused by HIV and that those suffering from illnesses could be treated with "old solutions.''

"Is there even a new epidemic? Is anything new happening? You need to know what the cause is before you start treating it,'' Duesberg said.

Panel member physician Christian Fiala from Austria said figures for HIV-AIDS in Africa were being exaggarated since people were being misdiagnosed as having AIDS when they had treatable infectious diseases such as diarrhoea caused by low living standards.

The United Nations' own AIDS body estimates that 33.6 million people worldwide are living with HIV, 70 percent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.