In Spite Of 11 Million Dead
Many Africans Think
AIDS Is A Hoax
By Neeely Tucker
Knight-Ridder Foreign Service
From Pioneer Planet

HARARE, ZIMBABWE - Baffour Ankomah, the publisher of one of Africa's most respected news magazines, has a mission. He wants to convince his readers that there is no such thing as AIDS and that millions of Africans aren't dying of it.
``Africa is the target of the world AIDS cartel. They want to pin it on us, to destroy us with it,'' said Ankomah, a Ghanaian who publishes the New African, a glossy, London-based magazine that circulates to 32,000 well-heeled readers in 40 countries. ``What we call AIDS is actually U.S. biological warfare gone wrong.''
The New African's articles are reprinted in magazines across the continent, and Ankomah's campaign is one of the most high-profile signs that many Africans don't believe that their continent is being devastated by the sexually transmitted disease. The magazine's editorials urge people to ignore health warnings and not to wear condoms.
AIDS workers say this denial, accompanied by a paralyzing fatalism, is by far the biggest obstacle to their work.
``I fear we're moving from a private, intimate denial of AIDS to a professional denial, one that tries to confuse things in so-called technical jargon,'' said El Hadj Sy, a Senegalese sociologist who is director of the United Nations AIDS program for central and southern Africa. ``People are desperate to find something to blame rather than their own behavior. They want to believe that something this evil must be inflicted upon our continent by outsiders.''
Millions of lives are at stake because the disease, for which there is no cure, is still picking up speed in almost all of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization estimated late in 1998 that 11.5 million sub-Saharan Africans have died of the disease, more than 80 percent of the world's AIDS death toll. In the 1998 report, the United Nations estimated that 23 million people in sub-Sahara Africa were HIV-positive, representing 70 percent of such cases worldwide.
AIDS conspiracy and denial theories have found fertile ground in sub-Saharan Africa in part because the issue can be made to sound political rather than medical. And millions of Africans have long memories of Western evils: slavery, colonial exploitation, Cold War proxy battles and biological warfare tests carried out by white-minority regimes.
Ankomah says AIDS is the latest of these, a money-making hoax carried out by the United Nations at Africa's expense. He disputes statistics on the AIDS death toll, which he says are grossly inflated.
``It's heartbreaking the way we Africans accept everything the West and the United Nations says about how Africa is the cradle of AIDS, the worst hit place by AIDS,'' he said.
But if AIDS is killing people, he said, it didn't originate in Africa and is a plot by Western governments to depopulate the continent. Ankomah proudly shows a 1970 Pentagon document ordering research into a virus that could wear down people's immune systems. He says that was the origin of AIDS.
He isn't alone in believing AIDS is a sinister plot.
Representatives of many demographic groups, including American blacks and gay white men in the United States, have voiced concern that AIDS might be a conspiracy to destroy them.
The AIDS-is-a-myth guru is Peter Duesberg, a German-born molecular biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, whose book ``Inventing the AIDS Myth'' is the bible of conspiracy theorists.
Duesberg's theory, which Ankomah quotes as gospel, is that Western scientists prematurely concluded that HIV causes AIDS.
Another weapon in the conspiracy-theory arsenal is the difficulty of obtaining exact numbers of AIDS deaths. Because HIV and AIDS cause an immune-system breakdown, rather than a specific illness, counting fatalities is difficult.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where abject poverty makes collecting precise medical data impossible, U.N. workers compute the number of HIV cases from counting HIV-positive pregnant women who visit health clinics. The number is then extrapolated through complex mathematical models to estimate the death toll.
The United Nations and the World Health Organization, using different methods, reached almost exactly the same estimates.
To Ankomah and millions of other Africans, there is plenty of room for numerical mischief.
``Why should Africa suffer all the humiliation about AIDS as unreliable figures are peddled as truth? What has Africa done to deserve this?'' African writer John Kamau asked in a February column in the New African. ``We are being told that unless we change our behavior, AIDS will wipe us out. . . . We are being blinded with phony statistics saying that Africa is facing a crisis.''