By Brendan Boyle

Reuters 16 Oct. 2001

Cape Town -- South Africa's Medical Research Council challenged President Thabo Mbeki's stance on AIDS on Tuesday, saying the disease accounted for a third of all deaths in the country this year.

A report by the state-appointed council (MRC) contradicted Mbeki's statement in a BBC television interview in August that accidents and violence in South Africa killed more people than AIDS.

Mbeki has also stirred a storm of controversy, which some analysts cite as a factor in the plunge of the South African rand, by questioning the existence of AIDS and its link with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The MRC report, initially blocked by Mbeki's cabinet, said that without government intervention or a change in sexual behavior, HIV and AIDS would account for 66 percent of all deaths by 2010 and that the toll from the disease would have risen to between five and seven million.

"These numbers are the best that are available in South Africa,'' Rob Dorrington, director of actuarial research at the University of Cape Town, told a news conference.

The report, prepared by five respected scientists, estimated 195,000 people would die of AIDS in 2001, more than double the government's figure of 65,000 to 80,000 deaths from accidents and violence in 2000.

The report has been ready for several months and its main findings have been leaked to some local newspapers, but the cabinet decided initially not to release it, saying the findings had to be verified.

Responding to intense pressure and criticism from labor unions, clergy and health groups, the cabinet reversed its decision last week and said the MRC could release the report ''with the understanding that this is but one contribution to the continuing official process.''

The report said South Africa, which has more people with HIV and AIDS than any other country, faces a dismal decade of escalating deaths in a society unable to afford proper treatment for the disease.

The report sees average life expectancy falling from 54 years in 2001 to 41 in 2010, when it expects about 780,000 people to die of HIV/AIDS related causes.

"Preliminary modeling shows that even at this late stage in the epidemic, effective programs resulting in changed behavior among adolescents and adults would significantly reduce the prevalence of the disease,'' the MRC said.

Dorrington said after the briefing however that there was no evidence in the council's research that sexual behavior was changing.