Former Envoy Blasts SAfrica AIDS Policy

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By CLARE NULLIS
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; 3:06 PM

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- A former U.N. envoy accused South Africa's leader of presiding over an "AIDS apocalypse," saying Wednesday that President Thabo Mbeki's dismissal of the country's widely praised deputy health minister last week crushed a glimmer of hope in the fight against the epidemic.

Stephen Lewis, who recently retired as U.N. special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, called for international pressure on the government to implement an ambitious anti-AIDS campaign.

"It is said that 900 men, women and children die every day in South Africa of AIDS-related illnesses. It's Armageddon every 24 hours," Lewis wrote in an opinion piece for South African newspapers. "Other than South Africa, every government in the high-prevalence countries is moving heaven and earth to keep its people alive.

Mbeki, long accused by activists of being in denial about HIV/AIDS, last week fired deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who had clashed openly with the president's close ally, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Mbeki said Madlala-Routledge refused to act as part of a team.

Tshabalala-Msimang has been the object of international criticism for promoting garlic, lemons and beets as therapy for people with AIDS, and for her open mistrust of antiretroviral medicines.

"No matter the astuteness of his economic policy, social interventions, financial acumen, or peacekeeping initiatives across the continent, he will always be known as the president who presided over the AIDS apocalypse," Lewis said.

"It's a terrible legacy with which to haunt the pages of history."

Tshabalala-Msimang was recently sidelined with health problems and her deputy revitalized the drive against the AIDS virus, which has affected an estimated 5.4 million South Africans _ the second-highest number in the world. An estimated 900 South Africans die daily of the disease and more than 1,000 people are newly infected, many of them young women.

After years of inaction, the government launched a new five-year strategic plan in March that set ambitious targets to halve the number of new infections, and extend treatment to more than 80 percent of adults in need, by 2011.

The Treatment Action Campaign, a group that represents people with HIV/AIDS, said that it would be watching the government to see if it was serious in its insistence that Madlala-Routledge's dismissal would not harm the new plan.

Specifically, it said the government must achieve the short-term targets of putting an additional 120,000 adults on treatment by the end of this year (currently 280,000 people are receiving treatment); ensuring that 70 percent of pregnant women are tested for the AIDS virus; and ensuring that 60 percent of HIV-positive women receive drugs to stop them from passing the virus to their unborn child.

The Treatment Action Campaign, which enjoyed good relations with Madlala-Routledge and repeatedly clashed with her boss, said public should pressure Mbeki to reinstate the ousted deputy.

But it was Lewis who most harshly criticized Mbeki and his health minister and the "demented absurdity of beetroots."

"President Mbeki will scoff. But he's running against the universal tide of public dismay," wrote Lewis, who is now co-director of a non-governmental organization called AIDS Free World.

There was no immediate comment from top government officials, who are attending a southern African summit in Zambia.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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