South Africa's Medical Research Council says that the country's HIV/AIDS pandemic could claim between 5 and 7 million lives by the year 2010. In report just released on death rates due to AIDS, the Council says the disease is the leading cause of deaths in South Africa.

The Medical Research Council says South Africa is experiencing an AIDS epidemic of shattering proportions. The Council says AIDS caused the deaths of 40 percent of people aged 15-49, and 25 percent of all deaths in the year 2000. The Medical Research Council says AIDS accounts for the greatest number of deaths in the country.

The report, based on an extensive study into adult mortality in South Africa, was leaked to some local news organizations over the past several weeks amid reports that the government was trying to suppress it.

The report is expected to embarrass South African President Thabo Mbeki who recently said that the extent of HIV infections in the country is being exaggerated, and ordered a review of government expenditure on the disease. The release of the report was approved after it was presented to the Cabinet last week.

The study was based on a demographic modeling system applied against actual death statistics. It underwent stringent review by both local and international HIV/AIDS experts and actuaries.

Even so, the South African Department of Statistics questioned the model and the results of the study. Council Chairman Dr. Malagapuru Makgoba said that regardless, the Department does not disagree that South Africa is experiencing an epidemic of major proportions.

"But there is no confusion between the Medical Research Council and Statistics South Africa that, as a country, we are facing a major HIV epidemic, which at the end of the day is going to become an important cause of death within our own nation," he said.

But Professor Rob Dorrington, who heads the Center for Actuarial Research at Cape Town University was less compromising. He said the Department of Statistics assessment of the study was riddled with half-truth and misunderstandings.