Alive & Well Participates in
South Africa’s AIDS Conference
with Christine Maggiore
I heard that you were an exhibitor at the recent AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa. Prior to the conference, there was a lot of talk about AIDS doctors heading to Durban prepared for a “showdown with AIDS dissidents.” Considerable media attention was also given to a document signed by 5,000 AIDS experts (called the “Durban Declaration”) that states HIV is clearly the cause of AIDS and that the questions about HIV that the president of South Africa, you, and others claim are outstanding have all been answered. I’m wondering, how did the conference go and what actually happened at the showdown? Also, how do you respond to the Durban Declaration?
Steve G, Laguna Beach
I can’t really say how the 13th International AIDS Conference went as I spent the entire time at our exhibit booth. Because of the near constant crowds of delegates interested in our materials and discussions, I was not able to attend a single session, panel, presentation, or cultural event. I spent eight full hours each day engaged in lively, polite, and very productive conversations with a wide range of people from around the world. In fact, all I saw of the conference were the restrooms, the cafeteria, and the hundreds of people who lined up to talk, listen, and learn about alternative views of HIV and AIDS.
In contrast to the media hype about the less than warm welcome that awaited us, our inventory of 490 pounds of printed materials and 500 books began to run low by the morning of the second day. Testimony to the success of our presence is the number of times we raced out for photocopies and the hundreds of books orders we carried back home. These requests for books, information and further contact come from doctors, educators, activists, health ministers and other government officials, treatment counselors, heads of AIDS organizations, and HIV positive and AIDS diagnosed people from an amazing array of countries including South Africa, Botswana, China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Korea, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Uganda. Rather than being put down or challenged—or even worse, ignored—we found that our alternative data and discussions we were warmly and enthusiastically embraced.
Despite all the big talk from AIDS enthusiasts about putting so-called AIDS dissidence to rest, the highly touted “showdown” did not occur officially or informally, and the statements made in the Durban Declaration were dismantled point by point, complete references, before the conference began. You can find this detailed response to the stance taken by the 5,000 signing AIDS experts at www.thedurbandeclaration.org and I would be happy to mail a printed copy to any interested reader without internet access.
The whole idea of a confrontation between AIDS rethinkers and AIDS hardliners was just one of many media misrepresentations. Had journalists promoting this notion done their homework, they would have quickly discovered that our organization was the only official presence at the conference representing alternative views, and that only one of the “dissident” members of President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS Advisory Panel, Dr. Charles Geshekter, was registered as a conference delegate. Instead, they misled the public and missed the real story: me, my husband and three-year-old son took on the entire AIDS establishment in Durban.
I found that much noteworthy news went unmentioned and that the obvious irony of many events escaped the attention of most reporters. For example, uncritical global coverage was given to a humanitarian rally demanding toxic AIDS drugs that South Africa can’t afford in which protesters carrying signs that warned “One Dissident, One Bullet” marched alongside members of the Nobel Peace Prize winning group Doctors Without Borders, while unanimous media silence followed a rally of traditional African healers using affordable natural therapies for AIDS who were excluded from official participation in the conference.
Of the thousands of reporters hanging around Durban, my husband was the only one to investigate the shanty town a few miles from downtown and speak with people living at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic. In taped interviews, residents told him how conference organizers prohibited them from attending public events associated with the AIDS conference—a conference whose theme was “Breaking the Silence.” Mainstream journalists also failed to address the question of whether malnourished people crowded into homes made of scrap wood, cardboard and other found objects—often with no electricity or running water—might suffer from diseases now called AIDS as a consequence of these conditions.
Among many unreported events was ACTUP’s admission that their widely publicized take over of pharmaceutical giant Bohringer Engleheim’s booth was staged and that Bohringer actually funds ACTUP. This revelation made ACTUP’s cries of drug company greed and profiteering ring more than a bit hollow, and revealed that Bohringer’s post-take over announcement of lower prices for their AIDS drug Nevirapine was a publicity stunt than a compassionate gesture.
The most disturbing and blatantly incorrect of the accounts coming from the conference had to be the international news reports of booing crowds and a walk-out during President Mbeki’s opening address. We witnessed an attentive, respectful audience and that the president’s remarks inspired a standing ovation. Second to this was an unchallenged front page news story “Young, Talented and Dead” that featured ominous predictions of a lost generation of South Africans and charts suggesting huge death tolls from AIDS. Simple math showed that what the charts actually indicated was that the number of deaths from all causes including AIDS among South African men and women over age 15 is remarkably low at 8/10ths of 1% annually, a rate almost equal to that of the United States. We also learned that in contrast to hysterical media reports of plunging population, infant mortality rates have not increased in South Africa during the AIDS epidemic and that life expectancy there is at an all time high.
We discovered that the media is remiss in its portrayal of Nkosi Johnson, the 11 year-old HIV positive AIDS activist who spoke on behalf of drug therapies at the opening ceremony. The media has popularized the idea that Nkosi’s illness is proof that HIV causes AIDS and that Mbeki is wrong for considering poverty, unsanitary living conditions and drug treatments as causes of immune suppression in his country. This idea is based on the fact that Nkosi was adopted into a middle class home as an infant and claims that he began drug therapy a few months ago only after becoming ill. During an interview filmed by my husband, Nkosi told me that contrary to official statements, he has been on toxic AIDS drugs for eight years and has become ill while taking them. I tactfully shared this revelation with his adopted mother Gail Johnson and the rest of South Africa during a live radio program that had us both as guests.
In addition to a private meeting with Gail and Nkosi Johnson, I was also able to see Winnie Mandela at her home in Soweto and introduce and discuss alternative approaches to South Africa’s alleged AIDS epidemic. I also had the unparalled honor of chatting with my hero President Thabo Mbeki in his office at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg one evening.
My response to you just touches on the many enlightening and encouraging experiences we had during our South African sojourn. I hope you will check our web site for further articles and for information on my husband’s documentary film of our adventures.
ALIVE & WELL Alternative AIDS Information Network (the organization formerly known as HEAL Los Angeles), offers free information, free meetings and classes challenging the HIV-AIDS paradigm. Call toll-free for details (877) 92-ALIVE.
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