DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) - South African President Thabo
Mbeki opened Africa's first international AIDS conference on
Sunday and told thousands of health experts that poverty was
the continent's biggest killer.
In his address to the 13th International AIDS Conference, Mbeki
failed to explicitly say that HIV causes AIDS but he did say
his government remained committed to fighting the disease.
Mbeki has courted international controversy by appointing
so-called "AIDS dissidents," some of whom doubt that HIV exists
or that it causes AIDS, to a presidential panel.
Quoting heavily from a 1995 study by the World Health
Organization (WHO), Mbeki concurred that extreme poverty was
the world's biggest killer and cause of ill health and
He told the delegates at the ceremony opening the six-day
conference that the South African poverty of which the WHO
spoke made AIDS "a partner with poverty, suffering, social
disadvantage and inequity":
"As I listened and heard the whole story about our own country,
it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single
"Let All Voices Be Heard"
Mbeki also used his address to defend his right as South
African president to appoint members of his own choosing to the
advisory panel, and for all scientists to be heard.
"I believe that we should speak to one another honestly and
frankly, with sufficient tolerance to respect everybody's point
of view, with sufficient tolerance to allow all voices to be
"Some in our common world consider the questions I and the rest
of our government have raised about the HIV-AIDS issue...as
akin to grave criminal and genocidal misconduct."
Mbeki's panel has agreed to carry out tests to validate the
widely used screening test for HIV, and will report back to the
president by the end of this year.
Mbeki said the government remained committed to fighting
HIV-AIDS through preventive measures and poverty reduction
Researchers, activists and health officials hope the conference
will highlight the AIDS disaster in sub-Saharan Africa, where
24.5 million people are infected.
This goal has been sidelined to some extent by the controversy
over Mbeki's interest in the AIDS dissidents.
Continent In Crisis
HIV-AIDS threatens to tear apart the social fabric and economic
base of huge swathes of Africa.
"Africa is facing an incredible crisis and that crisis is
called the AIDS epidemic. It's an unprecedented crisis that
requires unprecedented responses," Peter Piot, the head of the
United Nations' AIDS body UNAIDS, told Reuters in an interview.
The Treatment Action Campaign, a South African-based umbrella
group backed by 230 AIDS organizations from around the world,
marched to demand that pharmaceutical companies make drugs
available cheaply to developing nations.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African
president Nelson Mandela, fired up the crowd of more than 2,000
demonstrators by demanding the South African government fight
HIV-AIDS with the same determination that the liberation
struggle used to defeat apartheid.
"If we could struggle against HIV with the same commitment as
our struggle against apartheid, we can turn back the tide. If
we could give the same attention to the struggle against HIV as
we did for the bid for the World Cup we could save many lives,"
Madikizela-Mandela told a crowd of more than 2,000 marchers.