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Mandela urges unity against Aids
South African babies
Aids has left a generation of orphans
Former South African President Nelson Mandela has called on politicians and scientists to put aside their differences about what causes Aids, and concentrate on action to help its victims.

Closing the 13th International Aids Conference in Durban, Mr Mandela defended the right of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, to debate the origins of Aids.

Something must be done as a matter of the greatest urgency

Nelson Mandela
But he said the priority was to focus on what had been proved to work: education, promoting safe sex and abstinence, and halting transmission from pregnant mothers to their unborn children.

Mr Mandela described the Aids epidemic as "one of the greatest threats humankind has faced."

"Let us not equivocate: a tragedy of unprecedented proportions is unfolding in Africa," Mr Mandela said.

"Something must be done as a matter of the greatest urgency."

Former South African president, Nelson Mandela
Mr Mandela said action was more important than words
"The poor on the continent will again carry a disproportionate part of the scourge," he went on.

"If anybody cared to ask them their opinion, they would wish that the dispute about the primacy of politics or science be put on the backburner, and that we proceed to address the needs and concerns of those suffering and dying."

Mr Mandela was applauded when he said action was required to prevent the transmission of HIV from pregnant mothers to unborn children.

This was interpreted as a call for the provision of anti-retroviral drugs in public hospitals - something the South African Government has so far refused to do.

Call to Mbeki

On Thursday, the conference chairman also urged the South African Government to make available the drugs which suppress the effects of the HIV virus.

The [South African] government will have to make a decision

Professor Hoosen Coovadia
So far, it has refused to make drugs such as AZT available, despite evidence that they can prevent the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child.

The conference chairman, South African Professor Hoosen Coovadia, said the position was "absolutely clear" regarding the effectiveness of these treatments.

"The government will have to make a decision," he said.


Mr Mbeki's advisory panel on Aids includes several of the "dissident" scientists who have challenged the general medical view that HIV causes Aids.

Professor Coovadia likened the "dissidents'" denial to saying that "the sun rises in the north."

At the start of the conference, a group of scientists signed the Durban Declaration, stating their commitment to the orthodox view that HIV is indeed the cause of Aids.

"The importance of this document cannot be underestimated," Professor Coovadia said.

The six-day conference has highlighted the extent of the problem in Africa, where nearly 25m people are HIV positive or have Aids.

But only a tiny fraction of African sufferers have access to expensive drugs that can suppress the virus.

The next international Aids forum will be held in Spain in 2002.

The BBC's Greg Barrow in Durban
"Finally a politician had struck a chord with the delegates"
The BBC's Joanna Buchan
reflects on a remarkable few days
Joy Phumaphi, Botswana's Health Minister
"We have learnt many things at the conference"

Zambia Aids orphansOrphaned continent
Can Africa ever beat Aids?
See also:

14 Jul 00 | Media reports
11 Jul 00 | Africa
11 Jul 00 | UK Politics
12 Jul 00 | Health
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