South Africa’s controversial health minister hit back on Friday at criticism of her unorthodox views on AIDS and stuck to views that traditional medicine can treat AIDS.
More than 80 international scientists joined a campaign this week by a leading South African AIDS lobby group urging President Thabo Mbeki to fire Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for promoting home-grown treatments.
Tshabalala-Msimang’s office said in its first response to the letter there was a campaign aimed at deliberately misrepresenting the government’s programme to fight the disease.
It was an effort to “undermine the image of South Africa’s response to HIV and AIDS both locally and abroad,” her office said, without referring directly to the scientists’ letter.
Tshabalala-Msimang is facing mounting criticism for pushing traditional medicines and a recipe of garlic, beetroot, lemons and African potatoes to tackle a disease that has ravaged the region.
South Africa has one of the highest caseloads of HIV in the world, with one in nine of its 45 million population infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
AIDS activists, led by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), accuse Mbeki’s government of acting too slowly to curb the pandemic and South Africa was criticised at last month’s global AIDS conference in Toronto for downplaying anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs.
South Africa says it has one of the world’s biggest anti AIDS programmes and Mbeki’s cabinet on Thursday promised to step up its fight against HIV and better communicate its AIDS strategy. It shrugged off calls for Tshabalala-Msimang to be sacked.
She said in a statement she remained committed to leading the health department’s campaign against AIDS and stressed the benefits of traditional medicine.
“The plan recognises the role of traditional medicine and promotes research and development of these medicines,” the statement said.
Tshabalala-Msimang reiterated that the programme emphasised prevention as the central element of the response to AIDS and said it offered a number of approaches to keep HIV patients healthy.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD