Slamming the South African government's line that better nutrition is sufficient to tackle the crisis, experts insisted that antiretroviral drugs marked for a government ban were crucial to curbing the mortality rate.
Quarraisha Abdool Karim, an AIDS researcher from the University of Natal, told the four-day symposium in Durban that South Africa should expect a surge in deaths from AIDS.
"South Africa is coming out of a period of high HIV prevalence and is entering a period that will be marked by rapidly rising mortality rate," she said.
South Africa has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world with UNAIDS estimating 360,000 deaths in 2001 - an average of nearly 1,000 per day.
Government under fire
The government has come under heavy criticism for failing to roll out a national treatment plan for AIDS sufferers, choosing instead to focus on "nutritious diets" as a way to fight the disease for those infected.
The health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was jeered when she proposed that Aids sufferers eat garlic, onions, olive oil and African potatoes to boost their immune systems.
"Along with a rising number of deaths, there will continue to be a high rate of infections and more AIDS orphans will be stranded."
-Quarraisha Abdool Karim, AIDS researcher
A recent report from the University of Stellenbosch said most patients given an extract from the African potato actually became more ill after initial signs of improvement, while raw garlic could increase internal bleeding and interfere with drugs, and olive oil had no proven effect at all.
But the health minister said in a BBC interview that nutrition and the use of traditional medicine remained the focus of the government's efforts to treat the disease.
Drug ban threat
Simultaneously, South Africa's Medicines Control Council is threatening to ban the antiretroviral drug nevirapine, expressing doubts over its safety - despite the fact that UN agencies including the World Health Organisation endorse the medicine.
Karim said that although the prevalence of HIV/AIDS had levelled in South Africa, the battle is far from over.
AIDS activists attack government apathy
"The incidence of HIV infections may be close to saturation in South Africa, but it would be foolish to see this as success.
"Along with a rising number of deaths, there will continue to be a high rate of infections and more AIDS orphans will be stranded. A rising mortality rate should not be allowed to mask the fact that many people are still being infected."
She said South Africa needed a strong care and prevention framework to fight the disease.
"We have reached a critical period in this epidemic, which will have major implications for decision makers."
Drugs show results
Rod Hoff, a researcher at the US Department of Health and Human Services, said a study in the United States had shown that mother-to-child therapy had proved to be highly effective.
Some 2,000 HIV-infected children are born each day in developing countries such as South Africa.
"Mother-to-child transmission of HIV was reduced to between one and two percent in the US in 2002, when drug therapy was provided. This compares to a 25 percent infant infection rate pre-1994."
Hoff said some 1,200 HIV infections were thought to have been prevented from being passed on to babies in the United States in 2002.
Organisers of the Durban event, sponsored by South African campaigners and business leaders, are hoping to use the conference to bridge the gap between science and community, to seek common ground on ways to prevent the spread of the disease.