AIDS Activists Rally in S.Africa

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By CLARE NULLIS
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; 10:00 PM

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Hundreds of AIDS activists packed the city's cathedral Wednesday to show support for the dismissed deputy health minister they believe was targeted for speaking out about the AIDS crisis and other problems in the nation's health service.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, widely credited with revitalizing South Africa's beleaguered anti-AIDS campaign, was fired earlier this month, accused of taking a business trip to Spain without President Thabo Mbeki's approval and failing to work as part of a team.

Her dismissal has revived concern about the government's commitment to fighting the AIDS epidemic, which kills an estimated 900 South Africans each day.

Madlala-Routledge's firing "is a shame for South Africa. It's a shame for our beloved country," said Mpumi Mantangana, a nurse who oversees the treatment of about 2,000 AIDS patients in a poor Cape Town suburb.

"We will never allow ourselves to be silenced by people who are denialists," she said, using a term for people who question the link between HIV and AIDS and play down the extent of the crisis.

Her remarks were greeted with cheers from the congregation, many of whom wore T-shirts reading "Support Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. Implement the national HIV/AIDS plan."

The government says it is committed to achieving the targets in the country's AIDS plan and has repeatedly insisted the deputy health minister's dismissal would not affect it.

It has also sent Madlala-Routledge a bill for nearly $62,000 relating to her trip to Spain, and travel and expense payments dating back to 2001. The Treatment Action Campaign and AIDS Law Project have launched a public fund to support Madlala-Routledge.

Madlala-Routledge was one of the driving forces behind an ambitious, five-year plan unveiled earlier this year that aims to halve new infections _ currently topping 1,000 per day _ and extend treatment to 80 percent of those in need.

But there is mounting concern that the targets will be missed and many activists blame Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who openly criticizes antiretroviral medicines and instead has promoted lemons, garlic and potatoes as AIDS treatments.

Mbeki has vigorously supported Tshabalala-Msimang.

A coalition of church, union and health leaders distributed an open letter Wednesday calling for the South African National AIDS Council to make sure it meets targets set for the end of this year, including putting an additional 120,000 adults and 17,000 children on AIDS drugs.

"Today we once again live in fear that government is in retreat. We fear that denialism about the scale and needs of the HIV crisis is once again ascendant in the health ministry," it read.

An estimated 5.4 million South Africans are infected with the AIDS virus, the highest total for any country in the world.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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