South Africa’s health minister on Thursday criticised the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) goals on AIDS treatment and accused it of using the country as a scapegoat for missing the global target.
South Africa has the world’s highest caseload of HIV infections with 1 in 9 of its 45 million people estimated to carry the virus. Only about 42,000 South Africans are now receiving publicly funded AIDS drugs.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said the WHO had not consulted South Africa when setting up its “3 by 5” campaign to put three million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America on antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment by 2005 - a goal which now looks unlikely to be met.
“They set that target themselves, they did not consult, we were not part of the decision on that target,” Tshabalala-Msimang, who has publicly questioned the efficacy of the life-prolonging medicines, told a news briefing.
President Thabo Mbeki’s government, which had long resisted public ARV drugs, bowed to pressure in 2003 to introduce a public treatment programme. But leaders emphasise that drugs are only part of its response to the epidemic and that nutrition and hygiene are equally important.
Tshabalala-Msimang said South Africa would not be pressured to extend the roll-out of ARVs merely to help the WHO meet the 3 million person target.
“I don’t want to be pushed ... therefore we get blamed as South Africans, we are the scapegoats (they say) we are not assisting the World Health Organisation to reach that target.”
She reiterated that anti-retrovirals could be dangerous and held possible lethal side-effects.
GARLIC AND LEMON
According to government data, 42,000 people are on the state ARV programme - a big jump from 28,000 three months ago but still short of its own target of 53,000 by end-March 2005.
“When we talk about anti-retrovirals I will continue to educate the people of this country about the side effects of ARVs,” Tshabalala-Msimang said, adding that traditional treatments did not carry the same dangers.
“I have no information that nutrition has got side effects ... your garlic, your lemon, your olive oil, your beetroot,” she said, repeating a list of ingredients she has lauded as potential AIDS fighters in the past.
But she distanced the government from a campaign by prominent dissident AIDS doctor Matthias Rath to distribute pamphlets in poor black areas that argue ARV drugs are poisons.
AIDS activist group the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is fighting the Rath Foundation in court to stop the pamphlet campaign and block its claims that the TAC is a front for international drug companies.
Tshabalala-Msimang has been quoted as defending Rath in the past and has said Rath supports the government’s views on nutrition on fighting AIDS.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD