SAPA 17 April 2000

The government could not respond to the AIDS challenge from a narrow perspective, President Thabo Mbeki said on Sunday, defending his decision to include so-called HIV-AIDS dissidents in an international panel on AIDS.

"What we are discussing here as a South African government is that it seems incorrect to respond to this AIDS challenge with a narrow band --if we only said there is a virus, safe sex, use condoms, we won't stop the spread of AIDS in this country," Mbeki said.

He was interviewed on M-Net's magazine programme Carte Blanche.

Mbeki said concerns within the international community regarding the unanswered questions about AIDS would grow.

"The matter is critical because the reason we are doing all of this is to be able to respond to what is reportedly a major catastrophe on the African continent and we have to respond correctly and urgently -- and you can't respond correctly by closing your eyes and ears to any point of view, any scientific evidence," he said.

"A matter that seems to be very clear in terms of the alternative view that is being presented is what do you expect to happen in Africa to immune systems where people are poor, subjected to repeated infections ... surely you would expect these immune systems to collapse.

"And to attribute such immune system deficiencies to a virus produces a specific response."

Mbeki defended his much criticised stance on not making AZT available within the public health sector to pregnant women on the grounds of reported toxicity and cost.

"Lots of questions have been raised about the toxicity of the drug.

"It seemed to me that where doubts had been raised -- these toxicity questions and the efficacy of AZT and other drugs -- that it was necessary to go again into these matters because it would not sit easily on one's conscience to disregard that when you have been warned there could be danger and yet to have gone ahead."

Regarding the cost of AZT, he said "that surely must be a consideration".

The international panel, which is still being convened, is to address the AZT question again.

Mbeki said he remained in favour of bringing all points of view to the reopening of the debate on whether HIV causes AIDS, despite the view of leading virologists and AIDS experts that some of these issues have been adequately resolved six years ago.

"Let's bring all points of view together ...and see what the outcome is."

Mbeki said the panel may well be correct and this would give them an opportunity to show that the more popular viewpoints on AIDS might be wrong.

He dismissed the objections of leading medical experts who are concerned over his support for the dissident view, saying most South African scientists had been educated in one school of thought on AIDS, and that the so-called dissident view had been suppressed.

"I'm not surprised at all that you would find among the overwhelming majority of scientists in this field in this country that there are people who would hold a particular point of view because that is what they were exposed to."

"But then there is this other point of view and that is what is frightening ... this alternative point of view in a sense has been blacked out. It must not be seen, it must not be heard."

He said people who questioned his support of "dissidents" wanted to continue the suppression of another viewpoint.

"It's a very worrying thing that anybody can say in today's world that there's a point of view that's prohibited and banned, that they are heretics, and its all said in the name of science and health."

Mbeki said he would be contacting other heads of state to brief them on the government's intentions behind this inquiry, as the media was misrepresenting the situation.