Conspiracy theories fuel row over Aids crisis in South Africa

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South Africa's health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has fuelled the debate on theHIV-Aids crisis in the country by circulating a controversial theory that claims the virus was introduced into Africa by a global conspiracy intent on reducing the continent's population.

South Africa's health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has fuelled the debate on theHIV-Aids crisis in the country by circulating a controversial theory that claims the virus was introduced into Africa by a global conspiracy intent on reducing the continent's population.

The theory is expounded by American author William Cooper in a chapter in his book Behold, a Pale Horse. He claims the Illuminati - a conspiracy to control the world - introduced Aids to Africa via the smallpox vaccine in 1978, even though the last recorded case of the disease was in 1977. He also alleges that a known cure is being kept secret until enough people have died.

The health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, circulated copies of the chapter to the health ministers of South Africa's nine provinces at their last meeting. On her instruction, a local newspaper revealed yesterday, her parliamentary officer also distributed copies to provincial premiers.

The Western Cape health minister, Nick Koornhof, says that with it he received an anonymous letter, marked top secret and "for African eyes only", warning that the Aids virus could be in any vaccine coming into Africa from the West.

"This is absolute nonsense, what else can I say?" Mr Koornhof told The Independent yesterday. He is a member of the Democratic Alliance, an opposition grouping that controls the Western Cape government.

"I can only hope that Dr Tshabalala-Msimang has not applied her mind to the theory and has made a mistake by distributing it," he said.

"If it is a mistake, she should rectify it immediately. I have written to the minister asking if she supports the chapter, pointing out weaknesses in it and concerns about its originator."

The HIV-Aids epidemic has already infected an estimated 3.5 million South Africans and is expected to infect millions more in the coming decade. The South African government has been fiercely criticised for dragging its feet in providing pregnant women with drugs that reduce the rate of HIV transmission to babies, and for refusing offers of Aids drugs from donors.

The opposition-run Western Cape is the only province in South Africa that has implemented an anti-AIDS drug programme for pregnant women: it has been providing AZT for nearly two years, says Mr Koornhof, and has saved the lives of some 300 babies.

The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, caused a furore among Aids specialists, and disquiet among foreign governments, earlier this year by endorsing the views of dissident scientists who question whether HIV causes Aids, and believe its real causes are poverty, poor hygiene and local disease.

Mr Mbeki has since backtracked somewhat. Dr Tshabalala-Msimang told an international conference on Aids held in South Africa in July that Mr Mbeki's views had been misquoted and that he admitted a causal link between HIV and Aids. A new five-year plan to combat the disease, she added, stemmed from the premise that Aids is linked to HIV.

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