S. Africa Refocuses AIDS Program

By Terry Leonard
Associated Press
Monday, September 11, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 10 -- South Africa's government has scaled back the influence of its minister for AIDS policy, pilloried for questioning the effectiveness of antiretroviral drug treatments and promoting beetroot, garlic and African potatoes as ways to fight AIDS.

A group of international scientists called last week for the health minister, 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 that 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 said the health minister was an embarrassment to South Africa, had undermined HIV science and lacked international respect.

The scientists included American Nobel laureate David Baltimore and Robert Gallo, a co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS and developer of the first HIV blood test. The group 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 antiretroviral 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.

The government estimates it treats 140,000 people with antiretroviral drugs.

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