“Can Africa be saved from Aids?” asked Newsweek magazine in two stories in 1984 and 1986, reporting that “nowhere is the disease more rampant than in the Rakai region of south-west Uganda, where 30% of the people are estimated to be seropositive [HIV positive].” Newsweek was not alone. Over the next 15 years, prestigious newspapers and magazines across the globe repeatedly published similar reports; the consensus was that a devastating proportion of the Ugandan population was doomed by Aids to premature death, with all the consequences on families and the society as a whole. Their predictions announced the practically inevitable collapse of the country in which the worldwide epidemic supposedly originated.
The data seemed authoritative. By mid-1991, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was estimating that 1.5m Ugandans, nearly a tenth of the general population and a fifth of those sexually active, had the HIV infection. WHO predicted that in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, child deaths in the 1990s could increase by as much as 30% because of Aids. In November 1996, the agency reported that more than three million children were already feeling the direct impact of Aids in Uganda alone.
Today the public prints and airwaves are still full about the African “Aids crisis”. But you will read little about Aids in Uganda. The reason: all prophecies have proved false, as the results of a 10-year census published last year has shown. Uganda’s population grew at an average annual rate of 3.4% between 1991 and 2002, one of the highest growth rates in the world, due to persistently high fertility levels (about seven children per woman) and a decline in infant and childhood mortality rates. Economic development has also shown constant growth over the same period reflecting the energy and determination of Ugandans to improve their living conditions. Fewer people are testing HIV-positive and nationally, the figure is now put at around 5%.
The good news from Africa comes at a time when WHO is spearheading a massive campaign to combat Aids by raising funds to buy anti-HIV drugs for poor people in developing countries. It says 99% of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa who need treatment today because their illness has advanced to Aids do not have access to the drugs. Within two years, WHO wants the medicines to be reaching half an estimated 6m people worldwide whom it believes to be in urgent need. The cost, along with prevention and other activities, is estimated at $10.5bn in 2005, rising to $15bn a year by 2007.
Pledges from the United States, European Commission and European national governments, if fulfilled, will take Aids funding for developing countries from $4.7bn this year to $5.9bn by 2005. That still leaves a gap of nearly $5bn. According to WHO and its partners in the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids), the money is needed to tackle an Aids “catastrophe” in which 42m people are estimated to have become infected with HIV. Africa alone is said to have 30m infected, threatening economic collapse and national security in the worst-affected countries.
These enormous, grim statistics, regularly repeated, have created a pall of uncertainty over much of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the eyes of many Western investors, which further blights Africa’s economic development. The encouraging news from Uganda might have been taken to suggest that a huge increase in funds devoted to the anti-aids drugs would be money well spent – except that Uganda has shaken off the worst of its apparent HIV/Aids epidemic without resort to such drugs. Moreover, there have been other developments that cast doubt on the validity of putting pharmaceuticals centre stage in the fight against Aids – and even call into question WHO’s entire strategy in targeting HIV as the best way to fight AIDS.
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Neville Hodgkinson has been writing about AIDS for 20 years. As medical correspondent of the London Sunday Times during the second half of the 1980s, his reports "reflected the conventional perspective: that the cause was a deadly new virus being transmitted sexually and, because of a long time lag between infection and illness, surreptitiously". In 1991 he learned about Professor Peter Duesberg’s challenge to the HIV theory. He was "dismissive at first, because of evidence that seemed to contradict Duesberg", but in 1992, working as science correspondent at the Sunday Times, he was given an opportunity to go deeper into the subject and in April that year the paper published a two-page article setting out the main threads of Duesberg’s critique.
An angry but unreasoning response from medical and scientific leaders increased the paper’s editor’s interest and between 1992 and 1994 the Sunday Times published more than 40 articles exploring the scientific case against the virus theory, and questioning the validity of the tests, drugs, and search for an “HIV” vaccine. "Medical and scientific leaders in the UK accused [him] and the newspaper of putting millions of lives at risk by weakening confidence in the scientific community’s fight against the disease", and Nature under John Maddox mounted a campaign to stop the critique.
"However, deaths from Aids in the UK went into steep decline in the wake of [these] articles. Claims that new drug treatments were responsible for this decline have not been supported by scientific evidence." After a change of editor, Hodgkinson left the newspaper in July 1994 to write a book about the controversy, AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science (Fourth Estate, UK, 1996). He has "continued to contribute articles on the subject as a freelance in the hope of hastening an end to what he regards as a tragic error blighting the lives of millions of people, particularly in poor countries where diseases of poverty have mistakenly been relabeled as HIV/AIDS." (Otis)