SAPA 9 May 2000

Cape Town - The director-general of the health department and the official in charge of its AIDS programme on Tuesday both said they believed the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) caused the disease.

Their statements came on the first day of the parliamentary health portfolio committee's hearings on HIV/AIDS, and followed the first meeting at the weekend of a government-appointed panel that includes a number of AIDS dissidents.

Some dissidents deny any connection between the virus and the disease, or even that HIV exists - an approach which orthodox scientists say holds disastrous implications for any AIDS prevention campaign.

The DG, Ayanda Ntsaluba, and the head of the department's AIDS directorate, Nono Similela, both defended the formation of the controversial panel, Ayanda saying one had to "begin to blur" the line between dissident and orthodox views, and bring to bear all expertise, regardless of beliefs.

Challenged by New National Party health spokesperson Dr Kobus Gous on whether he believed HIV caused AIDS, he said he had been taught this and believed it.

However, he also believed the behaviour of the disease on the African continent was such that "we need to better understand what is going on".

He also believed there were many other complicating factors in immune deficiency on the continent.

Similela, in her reply to Gous, did not directly answer the question, saying only that she had been taught there was a virus which caused AIDS, but that what worried her about the epidemic was that it was "definitely different" in South Africa.

Questioned after the hearing on whether she believed there was a link, she replied "Of course I do", but expressed concern that the media would portray this as clashing with the views of President Thabo Mbeki - who has courted dissident views and defended them to other world leaders - and that this could cost her job.

She told the committee that since the AIDS panel was initiated, she had not had any directive from her seniors to change the strategies followed by her unit.

Scientific debate and discussion did not undermine these interventions.

"We will continue responding to the epidemic," she said.

Ntsaluba said the media had followed a "very simplistic" approach to the dissidents, and nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest the only thing that bound them was doubt on the link between HIV and AIDS.

"It's a spectrum of individuals who made an input," he said.

He said a number of eminent scientists, including AIDS research pioneer Robert Gallo, had been unable to join the 33-odd participants in the weekend's discussions in Pretoria, but would be available for the six-week Internet debate that would now follow.

Ntsaluba said the panel meeting had been a very useful exchange of ideas.

One of the members, French scientist Luc Montagnier, who first isolated the HI virus, had told him on Monday that he was beginning to understand that there might be "co-factors" that accounted for the high levels of transmission in developing countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.