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Scientists call S. Africa's AIDS policy idiotic

From the archives of The Memory Hole

HIV=AIDS Controversy: Into the Frying Pan

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the latest salvo from the dissident camp involving someone who cannot easily be silenced given his high station as president of South Africa. It may require the already vast NIH campus to expand into covert operations abroad. That would, of course, mean more funding at the expense of making the world safe for oil companies.

Scientists call S. Africa’s AIDS policy idiotic
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Frustrated scientists battling the HIV epidemic denounced South Africa’s AIDS policy as idiotic on Wednesday, saying thousands were dying while politicians argued about causes and cures of the disease.

Some called for foreign governments, especially the United States, to intervene and give the administration of South African President Thabo Mbeki a talking-to.

Mbeki himself took the debate to a new level by writing a letter to President Bill Clinton and other heads of state calling the AIDS epidemic a “uniquely African catastrophe.”

He asserted his government’s right to doubt whether HIV causes AIDS, to question whether lifesaving treatments such as the drug AZT are too toxic and to resist the “superimposition of Western experience on African reality.”

“This is fiddling while Rome burns,” Dr. John Moore, a leading scientist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, said in a telephone interview.

“It’s tragic that people are having to spend time and effort debating whether HIV is the cause of AIDS when we should be discussing how to stop it.”

More than 33 million people around the world are infected with HIV and 70 percent of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. On Tuesday, South Africa said an estimated 4.2 million of its people, or just under 10 percent of the population, were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Virtually all experts agree that HIV causes AIDS.

But Mbeki has for months been courting two dissident U.S. scientists, Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick, who deny that HIV causes AIDS. His government has also refused to make AZT available in public clinics, saying it is toxic even though studies have shown its use can protect the babies of HIV-infected mothers.

“If South Africa declares that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, what impact is that going to have on the rest of the world?” asked Moore.

Mark Lurie, an epidemiologist studying the spread of HIV in KwaZulu- Natal, the province worst hit by HIV, said he was exasperated by the situation.

“In this district, one out of three women who are pregnant is HIV- positive,” he said in a telephone interview. “I simply don’t have time for arguments that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.”

But Lurie, who has joined other scientists in trying to persuade the South African government to see the danger of defying years of solid scientific research, said he has come under pressure to be quiet.

“I think the concern is if you want to influence policy, then don’t alienate policymakers,” he said. “My answer to that is if policymakers are making idiotic decisions unrelated to science, it is our duty to intervene.”

Lurie said he hoped Mbeki’s letter would open an avenue for other governments to step in. “It may well make people more stubborn but I think it’s still a good thing to do,” he said.

But he and Moore expressed doubts that diplomats would place enough pressure on Mbeki. “U.S. officials are not going to start berating a foreign head of state,” Moore said.

He said he hoped a planned visit by Mbeki in May to Washington would create an opportunity for quiet diplomacy.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed the White House had received Mbeki’s letter but indicated that a gentle approach was indeed being taken.

“What I can say about that is that the South African government clearly grasps the depths of the problem of AIDS in South Africa and throughout the continent and is aggressively working to address the situation,” he told reporters.

“I think that the African governments are taking an approach that they feel is in their best interests and the best response to the particular situation in Africa and that’s the right thing to do,” he added.

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