SAPA 8 March 2000

Johannesburg -- The ANC, scientific organisations and institutions on Wednesday indicated their support for the government's initiative to convene a panel of experts to reassess research into HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The panel would be expected to reappraise scientific evidence that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), the Akademie vir Wetenskap and Kuns (SAAWEK), the National Youth Commission, the African National Congress and editors of the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) and the South African Journal of Science (SAJS) pledged their support for the review process on HIV/AIDS announced by the Ministry of Health last week.

A copy of the invitation sent to prospective participants on the panel by Dr Ian Roberts, special adviser to Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been made available to Sapa.

It states that "trusted colleagues" supplied the names of people who would be approached. It is understood that invitations were extended as early as mid-January.

Dr Malegapuru William Makgoba, President of the Medical Research Council, said he preferred "not to comment at this stage because I have not enough detailed information".

He said he had not been contacted by the Health Ministry and nor had the ASSAf.

The Academy's president Professor Wieland Gevers said he supported any "initiative that would help to develop and clarify public policy on a matter of such extraordinary importance as HIV/AIDS in South Africa" He said however, it would have to be "cost-effective, properly set-up and listened to".

"The academy strongly favours open debate on the issue, but would want, according to its constitution, to apply scientific thinking in the service of the country, that is to ensure that scientific knowledge and method are deployed in the approach."

Chief secretary of the SAAWEK Dr Bernard Louw said they were willing to contribute to the work of the AIDS committee, although his organisation had also not been contacted by Roberts.

"In view of the enormity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the akademie welcomes scientific and enlightened debate on the issue."

Roberts' invitation to the as yet unknown expert panel said that "it had been agreed by the President of South Africa and the Minister of Health that an expert group should be convened... the suggested topic for general discussion will be: AIDS in Africa - the way forward".

The intention is that the expert panel "shall consist of about 30 persons from Europe, America and Africa and will meet twice in South Africa. The first meeting will be in March/April and the second in June/July... In the period between meetings an Internet think-tank discussion is planned". This coincides with the upcoming 13th International AIDS Conference, a biannual event, which will be hosted by South Africa this year and will take place in July in Durban.

The conference will hold sessions devoted to HIV/AIDS and the youth. National Youth Commission spokesman Monde Makalipi said the organisation supported any move by the Department of Health aimed at informing HIV/AIDS strategy.

"Our particular interests that we need to have addressed by the expert panel is the treatment of HIV/AIDS and opportunistic infections, the general prevention of the disease and the prevention of mother-to-child infections.

"We strongly believe the expert panel can work if its sole purpose is to look at the unique situation we have in South Africa and Africa - the unique health care that prevails. We fully support the international expert panel move."

Editor of the SAJS, Dr Graham Baker said public discourse on HIV and AIDS had generally been ill-informed and inadequate.

"What is needed, at the very least, is a forum for critical and open discussion that benefits from contributions from the medical profession, scientists, social workers and policy-makers.

"Their collective advice and experience, even though they are unlikely to reach consensus about a national policy to tackle this dreadful disease, should be made readily available to all interested parties."

According to Roberts's invitation "all documentation should be placed in the public domain . . . the consensus report should be considered for publication in an international journal".

Baker's counterpart at the SAMJ, Dr Dan Ncayiyana said: "Enough questions have been raised about the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS for that relationship to warrant rigorous scientific investigation."

ANC media co-ordinator Nomfamela Kota-Mayosi said: "The ANC stands behind President Mbeki in championing the cause of finding a divergence of solutions to the challenge of HIV/AIDS and putting these into policy.

"We think that convening an expert panel is going to widen the debate and give people the scope to participate in all issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"This debate has been limited only to people who promote the school of thought that HIV causes AIDS."

This viewpoint was echoed by CSIR, president Dr Geoff Garrett, who said the organisation was already engaged in numerous activities to help reduce the future impact of the pandemic in South Africa.

"In the context of the enormity and urgency of the challenge that the HIV/AIDS pandemic presents to our nation, it is critical that all relevant skills and all institutions that can usefully play a role commit to work together in 'Team South Africa' mode."