SAPA 17 Sept. 2000

Nkozi, Uganda -- HIV testing should be suspended as should policies through which HIV positive pregnant and breast feeding women were provided with anti-retroviral treatment, said delegates at a controversial AIDS conference in Uganda, it was reported on Sunday.

The conference, held earlier this month at Uganda's Roman Catholic Nkozi Martyrs University, near the capital city Kampala, brought together about 60 "dissident" scientists from Africa, Britain and the United States. They debated and discussed what they called a "holistic approach to fighting AIDS".

The dissidents say the real causes of lack of resistance against AIDS are related to under-development, poverty, poor hygiene and local diseases.

They argue that there is no scientific proof that HIV causes AIDS. Delegates believe that HIV is only a passenger virus and that AIDS is caused by other factors.

The Ugandan government has stated that HIV causes AIDS.

Its AIDS Control Programme, which creates awareness to prevent the spread of AIDS, has been hailed as an international success after HIV infection rates halved in the country between 1992 and 1996.

The United Nations says that 24,5 million people in Africa are infected with AIDS, more than 70 percent of the world total.

Delegates at the conference, which released their statement on Sunday, have recommended that HIV testing should be suspended because the HIV virus had not been isolated and purified and there was "no gold standard" for HIV tests.

They said AIDS diagnosis varied across the world and a person who was HIV positive in one country could be HIV negative in another.

It was felt that a positive test result could impact negatively on people's physical, psychological and social well-being and could lead to hopelessness, despair and even suicide.

"Patients have the right to withhold their consent to testing for HIV antibodies and to be treated for presenting symptoms and diseases," delegates said.

If testing was done, appropriate pre- and post-test counselling must be provided at all testing facilities, they said.

The stigmatisation of AIDS and HIV patients must be stopped.

The delegates said the universal promotion of condom use could negatively impact on "our understanding of ourselves, our identity and all our human relationships" and undermined interpersonal trust.

"There is a growing concern about the erosion of care and respect for one another and the importance attached to the community. These values have been so prominent in many African societies and need to be restored and promoted."

Sex education was, however, important for the prevention of known sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea and contraceptive information should be widely disseminated to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions which were conducted without medical assistance.

Delegates said immune deficiency prevention must address its many causes in Africa.

This would include the cancellation of "crippling" debt repayments, the establishment of "equitable" economic relationships with wealthy countries, improvements in nutrition and the development of social and medical infrastructure, with an emphasis on clean water and sanitation.

This would go hand-in-hand with pollution control and the control of major epidemic diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

Delegates said that health workers and non-government organisations' work should be refocused to educate along these lines.

It was also recommended that proposals to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission by the provision of anti-retroviral drugs be reconsidered. This included the substitution of formulas for breast milk.

There was "overwhelming" evidence that bottle feeding in poor countries caused death and that anti-retroviral drugs had toxic effects. Delegates said exclusive breast feeding should be encouraged.

"The treatment emphasis for AIDS must be shifted from the provision of expensive and toxic anti-retroviral drugs to tried and tested interventions," the delegates said.

They did not elaborate on what these interventions were.

There was also a need to further research traditional remedies such as African herbs.

"Current research on developing a vaccine for HIV must be refocused and reviewed in the light of the questions and doubts about the isolation of HIV."

It was also recommended that African scientists should be encouraged to carry out their own research and an institution dedicated to health research "in its widest context" should be created in Africa.

The media in Africa should thoroughly investigate and report responsibly on all HIV and AIDS issues without relying on press releases and reports from Western countries, the delegates said.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is seen to endorse the dissident view, met with unprecedented rebuke from the world's scientific community during a recent AIDS conference in Durban.