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Conference Debates Disclosure, Denial of AIDS in Africa

December 13, 1993

MARRAKESH, Morocco (AP) _ Reports casting doubt on the origins of the AIDS virus and its epidemic proportions in Africa are damaging AIDS programs on the continent, a researcher said Monday.

Alan Whiteside, who studies the socioeconomic impact of AIDS on Africa for the University of Natal in South Africa, spoke to an international conference on AIDS in Africa attended by some 3,500 researchers and AIDS activists.

He cited a report in the Oct. 3 edition of the Sunday Times of London that read, ″They said it was the epidemic that would devastate a continent. Yet how many Africans are really dying of AIDS?″

The newspaper has provoked outrage in the AIDS and scientific communities for more than a year by publishing articles arguing the AIDS epidemic in Africa is a myth and suggesting the human immunodeficiency virus does not cause AIDS.

The reports, Whiteside said, are ″getting into Africa, and doing immense damage to our AIDS programs.″

Such reports are ″very light commentary without any analysis,″ said As Sy of Senegal’s Environmental and Development Association. ″Are people waiting for so many millions of Africans to die before believing an epidemic is propagating?″

The World Health Organization announced at the start of the conference Sunday that 15 million people have been infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS since the disease was first diagnosed in the early 1980s - two- thirds of them in Africa.

Some conference participants said migrant populations, including truck drivers, as well as military personnel, helped spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

In Namibia, for example, most known AIDS cases are concentrated along a highway frequented by truck drivers who engage in casual sex, often with prostitutes, said Douglas Webb, who did a study for the University of London.

Nearly 4 percent of Namibia’s soldiers are HIV positive, he said, and many have served in Angola and Zambia where AIDS is more common than in their homeland. A repatriation of more than 33,000 Namibians in 1989-90 added to the infection rate because 70 percent returned from Angola, Webb said.

Whether infected people should tell their spouse was also debated at the conference.

″It’s only fair that the partner know,″ said Olive Gudza, a biochemist at the University of Zimbabwe Medical School. ″I want to see partners educated and counseled, to prepare them for life together.″

Wingstone Zulu, an HIV-positive librarian from Zambia, disagreed. He said a man in his village told his wife he carried the virus and was then banished from his home.

″I don’t feel we should insist the partner be told,″ said Zulu, a member of an HIV-positive group called PALS, for Positive and Living Squad. ″Some might just commit suicide.″

Juliet Awino of Uganda wanted to do just that after her husband died of AIDS in 1990 and she had to decide whether to be tested for the virus.

″But my counselor was so good, so warm that I willingly took the test,″ she said. It came back positive, and she is now an AIDS counselor herself.

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