afrol News, 6 September - More than 80 of the world's leading AIDS experts have signed a sharp letter to South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, calling for "the immediate removal of Dr [Manto] Tshabalala-Msimang as Minister of Health." The experts claim she promotes quackery at the expense of dying AIDS patients and that her "immoral policies" are endangering lives.
The rebellion against South Africa's controversial Health Minister is spreading rapidly from local groups fighting HIV/AIDS to the international community. A total of 81 of the world's leading AIDS scientist have so far signed an open letter to President Mbeki, demanding he sacks Ms Tshabalala-Msimang from the Ministry of Health.
The scientists, who earlier had been sceptical towards South Africa's AIDS policies, had been shocked by Minister Tshabalala-Msimang's appearance at an international AIDS conference in Toronto (Canada) last month, where she represented the South African stand. The government exhibition had featured "garlic, lemons and African potatoes" as an alternative treatment against HIV infection.
"HIV causes AIDS. Antiretrovirals are the only medications currently available that alleviate the consequences of HIV infection," the scientists declare as the basic truth about the pandemic, contrasting the "denialist" statements by Mr Mbeki and Ms Tshabalala-Msimang.
The letter refers to statistics saying more than 5 million people are living with HIV in South Africa. Estimates further said more than half a million South Africans that have developed AIDS are not treated with antiretrovirals - medicines that could "save their lives." Despite earlier promises, the government was only giving treatment to around 180,000 patients with AIDS. "Many people are therefore dying unnecessarily," the letter said.
The most serious errors of Minister Tshabalala-Msimang's policies were however her "undermining" of HIV science in South Africa, resulting in the "proliferation of unproven remedies" and the marketing of "quackery, at the expense of the sick and dying."
The letter endorsed the closing address of Dr Mark Wainberg, chairperson of the Toronto conference: "To deny that HIV causes AIDS is farcical in the face of the scientific evidence. To have as Health Minister a person who now has no international respect is an embarrassment to the South African government. We therefore call for the immediate removal of Dr Tshabalala-Msimang as Minister of Health, and for an end to the disastrous, pseudo-scientific policies that have characterised the South African government's response to HIV/AIDS."
The Toronto AIDS conference had already turned into an embarrassment for the South African government as Stephen Lewis, the UN's special envoy for AIDS in Africa, said that South Africa's response to AIDS was "obtuse, dilatory and negligent". He added that the Mbeki government promoted a "lunatic fringe" attitude to HIV/AIDS.
After the international conference ended, a large number of South African HIV-positive citizens applied for asylum in Canada, stating that their lives were in danger at home due to the lack of AIDS treatment. Canada's 'Toronto Sun' newspaper reported that 130 of the 157 asylum seekers were South African women.
The strong protests from international AIDS experts echoes long-standing demands by AIDS activists in South Africa. The national Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) - the country's most vocal and respected anti-AIDS organisation - also currently runs a nationwide protest campaign, which among other things calls for the dismissal of Minister Tshabalala-Msimang and a new plan on how to tackle the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The "continued support of pseudo-scientific theories by the Minister of Health and the President" was the underlying problem in the national AIDS crisis, TAC said in a statement explaining its protest action. Government supported "AIDS denialism" was behind the problems of the treatment rollout and ineffective HIV prevention measures and promote early testing. "It is also the reason why a plethora of charlatans ... sell their unproven products with impunity in South Africa as alternatives to antiretrovirals," TAC says.
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