By Emelia Sithole

Reuters 3 July 2000

Johannesburg -- South Africa's government is looking to a controversial panel of experts with widely differing views to help it deal with a looming AIDS crisis, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala- Msimang said on Monday.

Opening a two-day meeting of an international AIDS panel set up by President Thabo Mbeki to investigate the pandemic, Tshabalala-Msimang urged the group to come up with concrete recommendations to help the government.

"We shall not be deterred in our effort to get ideas from anyone if those ideas will enable us to better serve our people,'' Tshabalala- Msimang said.

The 30-member panel includes researchers like American scientist Peter Duesberg, who believe AIDS is not caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The two-day closed session could set the tone for the world's largest AIDS meeting scheduled to begin on Sunday in the coastal South African city of Durban.

South African government officials have shrugged off criticism of their AIDS stance, insisting that all views on the spread of the virus will receive an equal hearing.

Ideas Sought

"What our focus has always been is to provide a platform for open constructive dialogue so that we can learn and get ideas on how to comprehensively respond to the challenge we face,'' Tshabalala-Msimang said.

South Africa has one of the world's fastest growing HIV-AIDS epidemics in a poverty-stricken continent where more than 70 percent of the world's 34 million people with HIV-AIDS live.

About 4.3 million South Africans, or 10 percent of the population, are HIV positive, a toll that increases by 1,700 new infections daily, according to government statistics.

A UNAids report released last week put the figure at 20 percent.

The government's efforts to tackle the disease have been bogged down in controversy.

Mbeki has expressed doubts over the effectiveness of anti-AIDS drugs and refuses to give pregnant women the anti-retroviral drug AZT.

Tshabalala-Msimang earlier told Reuters that the purpose of the AIDS panel was to clarify issues for the government which experts and scientists were unclear about.

She urged the panel to focus on:

- what the government's prevention strategies should be in the "South African context'' and to point out what has been lacking in a strategy that has failed to check the pandemic.

- the role of poverty, opportunistic infections and other co-factors in AIDS as well as the relevance of anti-retroviral drugs for developing countries.