shunned by our AIDS DENIALISTS

Helen Epstein is scary. No. Her work is scary.

Helen Epstein is scary. No. Her work is scary.

She writes authoritatively about things you do when you think no one is watching!

These are the very things, she says - or the behaviour that allows these things to flourish, at least - that lead to the high HIV incidence in Southern Africa, more than in any other part of the world.

At the last count, she was a (mere) scientist "working with a biotechnology company searching for an Aids vaccine". Her inclination to study - and thereby enhance her knowledge about the virus - is likely to have elevated her designation as you read this.

She is good, so good in fact that one of our own medical heroes, Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, chickened out of a meeting with her.

What exactly did she say that Makgoba did not want to hear?

"After 15 minutes," she writes about her fateful ordeal with the then head of the SA Medical Research Council, "he asked me to leave".

Makgoba, known to be very close to President Thabo Mbeki, did not want to talk about "the Aids dissidents, the African Renaissance, the European Renaissance, or Virodene".

Maybe renaissance, whether continental or borrowed, is way out of her loop - but why did Makgoba not hear her out on matters medical, related to the scourge of Aids, like the major flop that was Virodene?

Makgoba was not the only one to pay her scant regard. The head of the Aids directorate in Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's office, Dr Nono Simelela, played such a cheap version of hide-and-seek with her that, reading about it, all you can do is weep - not for your narcissistic self but all the people infected and affected by HIV-Aids.

When I phoned Dr Simelela the following Tuesday, I was told that she was out. Her assistant suggested I call again on Friday morning at nine. On Friday morning, Dr Simelela was not in the office. I called several times the following week, but Dr Simelela was either out of town, in a meeting, or otherwise unavailable. After I returned to New York I sent an e-mail requesting an interview by phone. She never replied.

What was it Simelela did not want to hear?

Epstein writes about the long-term concurrent relationships, the sexual lifestyle in the townships of South Africa, where a married man keeps one or more sexual concubines on the side. These are not one-night stands but people he sees or sleeps with all the time when he's not at home. She writes about anything and everything that has ever affected risky sexual behaviour and Aids; from virgin testing, dry sex, sex with minors, genital herpes, Gugu Dlamini, Kalafong Hospital ... the list is endless.

She's spoken to everyone who matters and quoted or perused every medical journal on the matter. Though she's been everywhere on the continent, she writes so knowingly about Uganda, her darling African country, that she deserves the highest honour Yoweri Museveni can conjure up for non-nationals.

If only our own leaders had made time for her.