The thirteenth annual International Conference on AIDS is being held this week in Durban, South Africa -- a nation in which one in five inhabitants are said to be infected with the AIDS virus. Controversy swirled around the conference's opening Sunday as keynote speaker, South African president Thabo Mbeki, failed to recant his suspicion expressed last week that HIV was not the determinant cause of AIDS. The President's remarks were subtle and ambiguous, focusing on poverty more than on medical care and discussing not only AIDS but several other potentially fatal epidemic illnesses "with complicated Latin names." Mr. Mbeki had consulted last week with two American biochemists, Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick, who contend that poverty and malnutrition, not HIV, cause AIDS.
A statement signed by 5,000 scientists and doctors affirming HIV as the cause of AIDS was scheduled to be released at a press conference hours before the conference opening, but that press conference was cancelled, reportedly due to pressure from the South African government. The controversy is heightened by recent demographic projections from the US Census showing that the AIDS epidemic will reduce the life expectancy in many African nations to age 30, a level lower than any seen in the last 100 years in Africa. Along with the release of these alarming numbers came one positive development this weekend: a pledge from the World Bank to commit 500 million dollars to AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa.