Flirting With PseudoScience

South Africa’s President May Become the First World Leader to Believe That HIV Is Not the Cause of AIDS

Despite a decade of vociferous argument, the dissidents have failed to convince a single major medical authority—and precious few doctors. Ugandan physician Elly Katabira recalled a visit by an AIDS dissident to his clinic in Kampala years ago. He has forgotten the dissident's name, but he remembers an exchange. At the time, his clinic couldn't afford to give patients HIV tests, and so Katabira was asked, " 'How do you know these people have AIDS if you don't test them?' I said, 'What we are seeing now is not what we used to see. Do you think we are stupid?' "

For South Africa, the larger issue is leadership. It has been more than four months since the president asked the health minister to review the risks and benefits of AZT, and despite having received three official reports, she has not acted, telling the Voice that she will not act until the new advisory panel gives her its advice, which will take at least another month or two. Thus, whether the government will fund AZT for pregnant women or use that money for some other pressing priority remains undecided. Last week, it was revealed that the health ministry failed to spend a shocking 40 percent of its AIDS funds. (The government said that most of these unspent funds "are committed.") And now, the president seems to be entertaining a discredited theory.

So, protest is building. Ramphele, the University of Capetown vice chancellor, made a speech charging the government with having "no coherent management strategy" on AIDS. Last week, at a national convention of people with HIV, the health minister was booed and jeered. And at the same convention, Edwin Cameron, a judge on South Africa's Constitutional Court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, took the highly unusual step of castigating the government's failure to lead, saying, "It simply does not seem that the government can begin to get it right on AIDS." After referring to the reports of Mbeki's flirtation with AIDS dissidents, the openly HIV-positive Cameron said, "There are too many lives, too much happiness, too much human prosperity at stake for flirtation with dangerous and wayward theories."

Research intern: Elinore Longobardi

Additional articles on AIDs by Mark Schoofs.

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