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S. African leader says nation is fighting vigorously against AIDS

SHARE S. African leader says nation is fighting vigorously against AIDS

DURBAN, South Africa — President Thabo Mbeki defended his government's AIDS policies Sunday by telling thousands of AIDS experts from around the world that he is simply looking for an African solution to the scourge that is ravaging the continent.

Mbeki has endured a hail of criticism since he convened a panel of scientists to investigate whether the HIV virus causes AIDS — a fact long-accepted by most AIDS experts — and refused to provide medicine to pregnant women to reduce risks for mother-to-child transmission of the disease.

"Some in our common world consider the questions that I and the rest of our government have raised around the HIV/AIDS issue . . . as akin to grave criminal and genocidal conduct," he told delegates at the opening ceremony of the 13th International AIDS Conference. "What I hear said repeatedly, stridently, is 'Don't ask questions.' "

However, since the poverty in Africa magnifies every health crisis the continent faces, South Africa needed to search for a solution to the AIDS pandemic that would deal with Africa's unique problems, he said.

As Mbeki spoke, hundreds of people walked out of the ceremony.

Seventy percent of the 34 million people infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 2 million people died of AIDS last year.

In May, Mbeki convened a panel of scientists, some of them on the fringe of AIDS research, to discuss the efficacy of accepted AIDS treatments and whether HIV causes AIDS.

Critics accused Mbeki of wasting time, energy and resources while the epidemic continued cutting a swath of destruction across the world's poorest continent.

Just days before the conference, 5,000 doctors, scientists and other AIDS professionals took the extraordinary step of releasing "The Durban Declaration," widely seen as a rebuke to Mbeki, saying the link between HIV and AIDS is "clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous." The declaration demanded that public health professionals focus immediately on stopping the spread of the disease.

Mbeki told the AIDS conference that he had convened the May panel to educate himself about the pandemic and to learn whether the Western weapons against AIDS — safe sex campaigns, condom use and anti-retroviral drugs — are sufficient to fight the disease in Africa.

"There is no substance to the allegation that there is any hesitation on the part of our government to confront the challenge of HIV/AIDS," he said.

The South African government has also come under criticism for refusing to finance a program to treat pregnant women with the anti-AIDS drug AZT, and Mbeki has said there was significant evidence the treatment was so dangerous it would do more harm than good. AIDS experts argue that the side effects of AZT, a widely accepted medicine, are minor compared to its effectiveness in reducing the risks that the virus will be transmitted to the baby in childbirth.

The government has also said it would not make effective drug therapies available to AIDS sufferers because they remain too expensive, despite promised discounts from pharmaceutical companies.

UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot, who spoke after Mbeki, appealed to developed countries to forgive African debt so impoverished countries can concentrate more of their resources on fighting the disease.

"Today we need billions — not millions — to fight AIDS. We need, at a minimum, $3 billion per year for Africa alone for basic prevention and basic care. And this figure is ten times what is being spent today," he said.

Some AIDS experts expressed disappointment in Mbeki's speech.

"Every South African hoped for a firmer acknowledgment for the links between HIV and AIDS," said Alan Whiteside, head of the Health, Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal in Durban.

Mbeki also "didn't go far enough in giving details of the situation and where we as a country were going to go next," he said.

But Seth Berkley, president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, praised Mbeki for laying out the fundamental issues of poverty that have made the AIDS pandemic so difficult to fight in Africa.

Before the speech, thousands of singing protesters marched to the cricket stadium where the ceremony was held Sunday, demanding affordable medication for all those infected with HIV.

Many of the marchers wore T-shirts saying "HIV positive." Some carried placards with pictures of pharmaceutical executives, calling them "Drug profiteers."

"We have failed to take HIV/AIDS seriously," said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, head of the African National Congress' Women's League. "That failure is a betrayal of our struggle for social justice and hope for our society."

Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela, attacked the government and drug makers and said the country needed to tackle the disease with the same commitment it used to fight apartheid.

Though the South African government saw how AIDS damaged eastern Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, it wasted time on ineffective policies and bogus drugs instead of stopping the epidemic from causing the same damage here, she said. About 10 percent of South Africa's 44 million people are HIV positive.

Madikizela-Mandela called on the government to allow importation of cheaper, generic AIDS medication and to allow local firms to produce the drugs without patents.

"We are marching to demand that a government that we have elected puts the interest of its people before the profits of the drug companies," she said.