Eighty Scientists Condemn South Africa's AIDS Policies

By Terry Leonard
Associated Press
Thursday, September 7, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 6 -- More than 80 international scientists and academics condemned South Africa's AIDS policies as ineffective and immoral and called for the firing of the health minister in a letter to President Thabo Mbeki released Wednesday.

The scientists called Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang an embarrassment to South Africa and said her activities undermined science. Signatories included American Nobel laureate David Baltimore and Robert Gallo, a co-discoverer of the HIV virus that causes AIDS and developer of the first HIV blood test.

They called "for the immediate removal of Tshabalala-Msimang as minister of health and for an end to the disastrous, pseudoscientific policies that have characterized the South African government's response to HIV/AIDS."

With their letter, the scientists joined mounting criticism from AIDS activists and South African opposition parties of Tshabalala-Msimang, often called "Dr. Beetroot" because of her advocacy of the use of beetroot, garlic, lemon and the African potato in the fight against AIDS. Mbeki also has been accused of ignorance and poor judgment in addressing an epidemic that threatens to cripple Africa's economic and diplomatic powerhouse.

The government estimates more than 5.5 million South Africans are HIV-positive, a number second only to India's and one that amounts to about an eighth of estimated cases worldwide. On average, more than 900 people die of the disease a day in South Africa.

There was no immediate response from the president's office or the Health Ministry to the call to fire the minister. But the cabinet recently defended her, saying false information about the country's treatment program was being spread around the world. Tshabalala-Msimang has dismissed and ridiculed calls for her resignation.

"My resignation? I haven't thought of it and I am not just about to think about it," she said at a recent news conference.

The government, which did not provide AIDS drugs until a suit by AIDS activists forced it to in 2002, said it has stepped up its program, which it said recently became the largest in the world. It estimates it treats more than 140,000 people with antiretroviral drugs in its program.

But the scientists estimated that 500,000 South Africans without access to the drugs now need them to survive. And they noted the government estimate was less than half of the target of 380,000 it set in 2003.

Mbeki has previously expressed doubts about the connection between HIV and AIDS and, along with his health minister, has questioned the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs.

"To deny that HIV causes AIDS is farcical in the face of the scientific evidence; to promote ineffective, immoral policies on HIV/AIDS endangers lives; to have as a health minister a person who now has no international respect is an embarrassment to the South African government," the scientists said.

The group said it was deeply concerned by the proliferation of unproven remedies marketed in South Africa, some with the support of the health minister.

They noted that at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto last month, the South African government exhibition "featured garlic, lemons and African potatoes, with the implication that these dietary elements are alternative treatments for HIV infection."

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