Reuters 10 May 2000

Cape Town - A senior South African health official on Tuesday defended the rights of so-called "AIDS dissidents'' to be heard and said some dissident scientists accepted a link between HIV and the deadly AIDS disease.

Ayanda Ntsaluba, director general of the country's health department, told a parliamentary committee that all sides in the HIV-AIDS debate had to be heard if South Africa was to tackle its alarming AIDS problem.

The parliamentary hearings came after an unprecedented weekend meeting in Pretoria of orthodox and dissident AIDS experts invited by President Thabo Mbeki onto a 33-strong advisory panel.

Ntsaluba defended the meeting of the panel, saying it was necessary to "begin to blur'' the line between orthodox and dissident views on AIDS, the South African Press Association (Sapa) reported.

"We need to better understand what is going on,'' he said.

South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. Approximately 1 700 people are infected with the HIV virus daily and one in 10 of the population or 4.3 million people are HIV-positive, according to government figures.

Mbeki has courted widespread controversy by appointing scientists to his panel such as American Peter Duesberg, who argues that AIDS is caused by a breakdown of the immune system triggered by recreational drugs and anti-AIDS drugs such as AZT and spread by poor living conditions. Mbeki has questioned the efficacy of AZT and denied it to pregnant mothers and rape victims on cost grounds.

Duesberg was appointed on Sunday to another government task team to prepare experiments that could prove or reject orthodox science's view that AIDS is caused by HIV.

Virtually all scientists say the human immunodefiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS and many fear that re-opening the debate over the causal link between HIV and AIDS will waste time in the fight to stop millions from dying.

Ntsaluba said there was a misconception that the so-called dissident movement was united in its belief that there was no link between Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and HIV which is generally believed to cause the fatal illness.

"There is a group in the dissident movement that believes HIV does contribute to the burden of AIDS,'' Ntsaluba told the hearings of a parliamentary health committee. The panel will report to Mbeki in six weeks' time ahead of an international AIDS conference in Durban in July. The panel is continuing its talks through a closed Internet link.