By Lynne Altenroxel

The Star (SA) 4 April 2001

Two-and-a-half million rands later, the Presidential AIDS Panel has come up with a report which shows little more than the chasm between dissidents and orthodox scientists.

The final report, presented to the cabinet in Cape Town on Wednesday, concludes that the rift was so great that the delegates were unable to find common ground on policy matters.

"The depth of the cleft on the aetiology of AIDS was such that the commonalities of views on health policy and public policy was by and large swallowed up," the report concluded.

The panel could not even provide a single set of recommendations.

Its 13 pages of recommendations was split up into two sections according to dissident and orthodox views.

Summaries range from statistical proof that HIV-positive babies are dying from AIDS to a recommendation by dissident Dr David Rasnick and Medunsa Professor Sam Mhlongo that donated blood not be screened for HIV because screening is a futile exercise.

Rasnick argues that "AIDS would disappear instantaneously if all HIV testing were outlawed".

Under the heading South African epidemic - fact or fiction, the report writes: "Those from the school of thought that argues that HIV does not cause AIDS also argued the futility of discussing an HIV epidemic, as they do not believe that HIV causes AIDS."

The report deals with the deliberations and evidence brought by both groups.

Stark statistics presented by the orthodox scientists included the results of two studies.

One, from King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban, shows that the two-year fatality for children infected with HIV is almost 60 percent.

Case fatality rates went up from 4,5 percent in 1995 to 22,6 percent in 1999.

Another, from Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, shows the infant mortality rate is more than double in HIV-positive children versus HIV-negative children.

HIV incidence at the hospital increased from 26 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 1999.

Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said the cabinet meeting, at which the report was one of the main points on the agenda, focused more on preparing for the release of the report than on its contents.

She justified the report by saying "the debate of the panel has not provided ground for the government to depart from its current approach to the HIV and AIDS problem, which is rooted in the premise that HIV causes AIDS".

"It was not assumed at the start of the exercise that the objective was to achieve consensus," she said.

Ironically, the R2,5-million spent on the AIDS panel could have bought 5 million condoms, which the government obtains at 50 cents each.