SAPA 5 July 2000

Johannesburg -- The main reason for the establishment of the Presidential AIDS Advisory Council had never been to determine the link between HIV and AIDS, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

"It has been wrongly reported in the media that our main goal is to determine whether HIV causes AIDS.

"We established the council to discuss possible reasons for the high occurrence of the disease in Africa," she told Sapa after a media briefing on the second round of discussions by members of the council.

Tshabalala-Msimang said there was rising concern among health officials that South African HIV tests were inaccurate, causing unreliable statistics.

"We are very concerned. We have been a bit concerned about our own data. We are not very sure of the numbers ... it is logical (that we) ... want to improve our data," the minister said.

Dr Harvey Bialy, of the Autonomous National University of Mexico, told reporters the council decided that a study group should determine the accuracy of South African HIV tests.

The results of the study would be available by the end of the year.

Bialy was contradicting an earlier statement to the media by the president of the SA National Research Foundation, Khotso Mokhele, that experiments would be conducted to determine whether HIV causes AIDS. He also said those results would be available before the end of the year.

"He (Mokhele) became a bit overexcited," Baily said.

However, he said the information gathered from the first study on South African HIV tests, could in the far future lead to further studies, testing the link between HIV and AIDS.

"Our first priority is delivering accurate on true infections," he said.

Baily said other HIV/AIDS related tests would be conducted in due course.

He said there was another theory that HIV normally gets transmitted from mother to child, implying that the disease is not fatal.

"But those studies will not be done in the immediate future," he said.

Tshabalala-Msimang said the results of the analysis on South African HIV tests would form the basis for the country's future approach towards the pandemic.

President Thabo Mbeki set up the Presidential AIDS Advisory Council to advise the government on how to fight the pandemic and test assumptions about AIDS.

The scientists on the council met for a first round of discussions at the beginning of May. After that, they continued their talks for six weeks over the Internet.

The final round of meetings took place on Monday and Tuesday. Tshabalala-Msimang on Sunday appealed to scientists to stay focused on the main issue - assisting the South African government in saving lives.

"Our focus has always been to proide a platform for open constructive dialogue so that we can learn and get ideas on how to comprehensively respond to the challenge we face."

The panel is made up of more than 30 scientists enlisted by South Africa, who were reportedly evenly split between experts questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and those subscribing to the conventional view.

Mbeki has come under fire in recent months for reportedly saying that he was not convinced that HIV was the single virus causing AIDS or death attributed AIDS.