September 7, 2006

HIV-experts demand dismissal of health minister

A group of the world's leading HIV scientists, including the co-discoverer of HIV Robert Gallo, Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore, and local experts, has petitioned President Thabo Mbeki to fire Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang over her handling of South Africa's AIDS epidemic. The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the country is widely acknowledged to be among the world's worst, with more than 5,5-million South Africans, about 11,6% of the population, infected with HIV. “To have as health minister someone who now has no international respect is an embarrassment to the South African government," they said in a letter to the president. They called for an end to the "disastrous, pseudo-scientific policies" that had "characterised government's response to the epidemic".
The letter, dated September 4, adds to the growing pressure on the Presidency to respond to the tide of international criticism levelled at government in the wake of the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto. The high-profile gathering saw Tshabalala-Msimang lambasted by scientists, activists and the United Nations Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS for Africa, Stephen Lewis, for promoting lemons, beetroot and the African potato as alternatives to AIDS drugs. At the same time, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has stepped up its civil disobedience campaign, staging high-profile protests against government's response to the epidemic. More than 175.000 patients are getting AIDS drugs in the public sector, and another 80.000 pay for them privately. But, say the scientists who signed the petition, another half a million people in need are unable to get treatment. "Much credit for the impressive advancement of HIV science belongs to scientists and clinicians in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. Their expertise should play a critical role in alleviating the awful consequences HIV has caused South African society. We are therefore deeply concerned at how HIV science has been undermined by ... Dr Tshabalala- Msimang," said the scientists. "We are also deeply concerned by the proliferation of unproven remedies being marketed in South Africa, some with the implicit or even explicit support of the minister of health," they said.
Government spokesperson Themba Maseko told reporters that HIV and Aids was the responsibility of the government as a whole and not solely a ministry of health problem.
During cabinet meetings, some ministers were of the view that there was nothing wrong with government policy on HIV and Aids, but rather with how it was communicated. The ministers were not necessarily apportioning blame to Tshabalala-Msimang, but were concerned about the affect of her personality and worldwide perceptions that nothing much was being done to curb the pandemic, the source said. "There was that debate in the cabinet. There are those who conclude that her personality is a problem," the source said. But Tshabalala-Msimang gets her backing from president Thabo Mbeki. (Business Day, Johannesburg)

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