South Africa’s controversial health minister returned to the spotlight on Thursday after snubbing a major AIDS conference, announcing a “significant” decrease in the number of pregnant women infected with HIV.
“This is mainly as a result of our continued focus on prevention as the mainstay of our response to combat HIV and lead to an HIV-free society,” Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told parliament during a speech on her departmental budget.
Tshabalala-Msimang said the latest data from pregnant women visiting public antenatal clinics - a key marker in the overall levels of HIV infection in South Africa - showed a “statistically significant” decrease, but she gave no figures.
Spokespeople at the Health Ministry were not immediately available to comment.
About one in five pregnant women tested positive for HIV last year at clinics in the Western Cape, one of the South African regions least affected by AIDS.
Easing back into her job after a liver transplant earlier this year, Tshabalala-Msimang withdrew from South Africa’s third national AIDS conference in the east coast city of Durban this week after she was not given a prominent speaking slot.
Tshabalala-Msimang has long been at loggerheads with activists and doctors for her unorthodox views on HIV/AIDS. Her support of a nutrition-based approach to fighting the virus stands in contrast to mainstream scientific support for anti-retroviral (ARV) drug treatment.
Tshabalala-Msimang said on Thursday that more than 282,836 patients at 355 accredited facilities received ARV medication by the end of March. The government has said it hopes to have one million people on ARV treatment by 2011.
South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV prevalence, with some 5 million out of a population of about 47 million people infected by the virus. It is estimated that at least 1,000 people die from AIDS-related causes every day in Africa’s strongest economy.