S. Africa Curbs AIDS Minister Influence
Saturday, September 9, 2006; 10:53 PM
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's government scaled back the influence of its minister for AIDS policy, pilloried for questioning the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drug treatments and promoting beetroot, garlic and African potatoes as ways to fight AIDS.
A group of international scientists called for Health Minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, nicknamed "Dr. Beetroot," to be fired and they labeled South Africa's program "inefficient and immoral."
Government spokesman Themba Maseko defended the minister, but said Friday the Cabinet had appointed a committee headed by Deputy President Phumzilie Mlambo-Ngcuka to oversee the implementation of the country's AIDS program.
"We need to shift focus from saying the problem in the program is the minister of health," Maseko said.
In an open letter to President Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday, 81 international AIDS scientists called the health minister an embarrassment to South Africa who has undermined HIV science and who has no international respect.
The scientists include American Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and Dr. Robert Gallo, a co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS and developer of the first HIV blood test. They called for an end to South Africa's "disastrous, pseudoscientific policies" and urged Mbeki to remove the health minister immediately.
With the letter the scientists joined mounting calls by AIDS activists and opposition parties for the president to fire Tshabalala-Msimang.
South Africa has an estimated 5.5 million people infected with HIV, a number second only to India and one that amounts to about an eighth of estimated cases worldwide. On average, more than 900 people die of the disease each day in South Africa. The government said Thursday that the adult death rate had climbed significantly over a seven-year period, largely because of AIDS.
Mbeki previously has expressed doubts about the connection between HIV and AIDS, and along with Tshabalala-Msimang has questioned the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs in treating the disease.
Tshabalala-Msimang's office said in a statement Friday that there was a campaign aimed at deliberately misrepresenting the government's program to fight the disease.
Her statement and the Cabinet reacted not only to the scientists' letter, but also to other attacks on its policies at the International AIDS conference in Toronto last month, including a scathing one by Stephen Lewis, the U.N. special envoy for AIDS in Africa.
"It is the only country in Africa ... whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment," Lewis said. "It is the only country in Africa whose government continues to promote theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state."
The scientists noted that at the AIDS conference, the South African exhibition featured garlic, lemons and African potatoes, "with the implication that these dietary elements are alternative treatments."
Maseko, the government spokesman, said the health minister had made it clear that South Africa's program included anti-retrovirals and nutrition, but that she might have given the impression the focus was on nutrition and specific nutrients.
"Nutrition is not an alternative to anti-retrovirals or forms of treatment. This has always been the government approach on this matter," Maseko said. "Equally, the misconception that anti-retrovirals are a cure for AIDS is not only misleading but dangerous as it creates false hopes."
The government, which did not provide AIDS drugs until forced to do so by a 2002 court ruling, said its AIDS program is now the largest in the world. It estimates it treats 140,000 people with anti-retroviral drugs.
However, that number is less than half of the target of 380,000 the government set in 2003 and well below the 500,000 South Africans that the scientists estimate now need the drugs to survive.