- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

DURBAN, South Africa President Thabo Mbeki defended his government's AIDS policies yesterday by telling a global AIDS conference that he is simply looking for an African solution to the scourge that is ravaging the continent.
Mr. 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. He also 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, the continent's poverty has forced South Africa to search for a solution to the AIDS pandemic that would deal with Africa's unique problems, he said.
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, Mr. Mbeki convened a panel of scientists, some of them far from the scientific mainstream on AIDS research, to discuss the efficacy of accepted AIDS treatments and whether HIV causes AIDS.
Critics accused Mr. Mbeki of wasting time, energy and resources while the epidemic continued to cut 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Mbeki told the AIDS conference that he had convened the panel to educate himself about the pandemic and to learn whether the Western weapons against AIDS safe-sex campaigns, condom use and antiretroviral drugs were right for 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 also has come under criticism for refusing to finance a program to treat pregnant mothers with the anti-AIDS drug AZT, and Mr. Mbeki has said there was significant evidence the treatment was so dangerous it would do more harm than good.
AIDS experts argued that the side effects of AZT, a widely accepted medicine, were minor compared to its effectiveness in reducing the risks that the virus will be transmitted to the baby in childbirth.
Before the speech, thousands of singing protesters marched to the cricket stadium where the ceremony was held yesterday, demanding affordable medication for all those infected with HIV.

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