David Ho, one of the world's leading
AIDS researchers, stood in front of thousands of experts at the
International AIDS Conference and made a statement few would have
thought necessary a few months ago: "HIV is the cause of AIDS."
At previous AIDS gatherings that statement would have been so
obvious as to appear bizarre.
But fears that President Thabo Mbeki's recent flirtation with
fringe AIDS theories has given "AIDS dissidents" unprecedented
clout, have pushed many AIDS researchers and activists to take a
stand on what had long been considered a closed issue.
In the run-up to the conference, 5,000 scientists and doctors
signed the "Durban Declaration," published in the journal Nature,
which stated the link between HIV and AIDS is "clear-cut,
exhaustive and unambiguous."
At a news conference Thursday, the declaration's organizers
explained that their extraordinary letter, widely seen as a rebuke
to Mbeki, was necessary because the very fundamentals of anti-AIDS
efforts are based on the premise that HIV causes the disease.
"It's important for really all our interventions that the
record is set straight that HIV causes AIDS," said Stefano Ella,
president of the International AIDS Society.
Few people here would argue that point, though a handful of AIDS
dissidents have held a few forums, many proudly declaring that they
are part of Mbeki's presidential advisory panel on AIDS.
In May, Mbeki convened that panel, which included many
controversial AIDS theorists, to educate himself on the disease.
After their first meeting, representatives of the panel said the
scientists were designing an experiment to prove whether HIV caused
After the panel's second meeting last week, however, they said
they had been misunderstood and were actually searching for more
affordable ways to test for the virus.
Mbeki has insisted that while the panel was meeting the
government was still working to aggressively fight the disease.
Critics have accused Mbeki of wasting time, energy and resources
on debating a long-settled issue while the epidemic cut deeper
through the country. Mbeki has insisted the government was
continuing to fight the disease while the panel was meeting, though
critics have charged that the government was not doing nearly
enough to prevent the disease from spreading or to treat those
"Actions always speak louder than words," said Charles van der
Horst, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina
and one of the main coordinators of the Durban Declaration. "If
the government proceeds with implementing a comprehensive HIV
prevention program ... that's the important thing. If the
government persists in dealing with AIDS denialists, that's a big
Sandy Thurman, the Clinton administration's top AIDS official,
said in response to a question that U.S. government officials and
scientists agreed that the virus caused the disease. "I don't
think there's a doubt about that."
Even Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, head of the African National
Congress' Women's League, took a swipe at Mbeki during a rally
Sunday. "Let me start by asserting what appears to have become
less obvious in South Africa in the last few months. AIDS exists.
HIV causes AIDS," she said to raucous applause.
Hoosen Coovadia, the chair of the AIDS conference, said the
Durban Declaration should not be seen as an attack on Mbeki, but as
a simple effort to set the record straight and permanently bury
"I hope that this conference serves as a watershed to put all
of that behind us," he said.
Ho was far more blunt.
"Failure to properly address the modern plague caused by HIV
disease is an act of irresponsibility that will be judged harshly
by history," he told the conference Tuesday. "President Mbeki, I
beg you not to allow your legacy to be defined by inaction on this