Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Rian Malan on AIDS
One of the very first links that was put up by this blog was to a controversial, but interesting, article by Rian Malan questioning the extent of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Malan was dubious about the efficacy of the modeling techniques used to determine how many people are infected with the disease and suggested that such models habitually over-estimate the numbers. For his efforts he was excoriated by the local press and became in his own words, '...something of a social leper.' Well, it seems that you can't keep a good journalist down and so it was with interest that I read this recent Spectator cover story in which Malan returns to the issue of AIDS in Africa and the problems with those pesky models.

As I said in that earlier post, Malan writes so well that it is hard not to find yourself agreeing with him, hard not to nod your head when he tells us about the worlds propensity for seeing Africa as a source of bad news stories, hard not to feel a twinge of recognition when he discusses the politicisation of AIDS. Malan's stance on AIDS (and the worlds reaction to him) put me in mind of Bjorn Lomborg, another maverick dissident questioning the established shibboleths of, this time, the environmental movement. Lomborg argued, in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, that environmental alarmism has reached a level which is out of all proportion to the threat that we actually face and that this alarmism is driven by the fact that bad news sells and that the environmental movement is, like all such movements, a self interested beast which inflates risks and stokes up fears as a means to securing funding, increasing exposure, making careers etc. These are very much the type of factors which Malan invokes when trying to explain why it is that AIDS has become such a big issue in Africa even though it appears not to be on the verge of de-populating large swathes of the continent and, in fact, is probably not even the leading cause of death. Whether you find him convincing or not depends largely, I suspect, on whether you are able to turn the same jaundiced eye traditionally reserved for politicians and businessmen on science and scientists.

I find Malan to be both a disturbingly rational and refreshingly dissenting voice in the AIDS debate. But I'd suggest that anybody who's inclined to take his bait keep this paragraph from his recent article in mind:

When the virus first emerged, I was living in America, where HIV incidence was estimated to be doubling every year or so. Every time I turned on the TV, Madonna popped up to warn me that 'Aids is an equal-opportunity killer', poised to break out of the drug and gay subcultures and slaughter heterosexuals. In 1985, a science journal estimated that 1.7 million Americans were already infected, with 'three to five million' soon likely to follow suit. Oprah Winfrey told the nation that by 1990 'one in five heterosexuals will be dead of Aids'.

We now know that these estimates were vastly and indeed deliberately exaggerated, but they achieved the desired end: Aids was catapulted to the top of the West's spending agenda


The West's success in preventing AIDS from becoming a problem was premised upon the fact that it took the threat seriously and acted upon it. This is a lesson that has yet to be learned by Thabo Mbeki and others of his ilk. Malan is right to question the numbers but we shouldn't allow ourselves to be convinced that AIDS is not a problem. It is, as even he is at pains to point out.

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