Extreme poverty and not HIV/AIDS is the world’s biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering, President Thabo Mbeki told some 12 000 delegates at the opening of the13th world AIDS conference in Durban.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics showed that Africans were “confronted by a health crisis of enormous proportions and “it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus”, he added. But, said Mbeki, “some consider the questions I and the rest of our government have raised around HIV/AIDS as akin to grave criminal and genocidal misconduct”.

He thus appealed to conference delegates to “speak to one another honestly and frankly, with sufficient tolerance” and to “allow all voices to be heard”.

He confirmed that the panel of scientists he had convened in May to look into the epidemic would now only report back to him at the end of the year, and that it was now concentrating on assessing whether HIV tests were reliable.

Earlier in the day, a press conference of some of the 5 000 scientists who had signed the Durban Declaration setting out the orthodox scientific facts about HIV/AIDS was cancelled without explanation.

It was rumoured that the cancellation had been promoted by the news that the president was to make a major concessionary announcement at the opening.

However, Mbeki’s speech confirmed that he still has a number of questions about the epidemic, including questions around antiretrovirals such as AZT, which he had earlier condemned as being “toxic”.

He said that the government would conduct “”further research on anti-retroviral drugs” as part of an intensification of its own campaign against HIV/AIDS.

Other aspects of the campaign would include:

* “a sustained public awareness campaign encouraging safe sex and the use of condoms”

* “a better focused programme targeted at the reduction and elimination of poverty”            

* a humane response to people living with HIV and AIDS as well as the orphans in our society.

At a meeting before the opening, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) president Zackie Achmat said he was “tired of people preparing for orphans when the lives of their parents could be saved” if they have access to anti-AIDS drugs.

Dwarfed by the gigantic stage, tiny, emaciated AIDS sufferer Nkosi Johnson (11) appealed to government to provide AZT to mothers and children at the opening ceremony last night.

Johnson, who contracted HIV from his mother who has since died, said that infected mothers should not be separated from their children. He was placed in a care centre after his mother could no longer look after him.

Stressing that people with AIDS “are human beings”, he said that you “can’t get AIDS from hugging, kissing, holding hands”.

“I know that I must cover my own wound so that my blood doesn’t get into another person’s wound. That is the only time that I am dangerous to other people,” Johnson told delegates.

The conference, which will be closed by Nelson Mandela on Friday, will consider a range of scientific, ethical and humanitarian responses to the epidemic. – Health-e News