- 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
- 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.''