Mbeki urged to sack ally over HIV views

Posted in Africa | 08-Sep-06 | Author: Chris McGreal| Source: Guardian (UK)

· Health minister advocates vegetables to manage Aids
· Letter from 81 experts to South African president

More than 60 leading Aids scientists, including the co-discoverer of HIV, have demanded that President Thabo Mbeki sack his health minister because her "immoral" and "pseudo-scientific" views on treating the disease are claiming lives.

The scientists have written to Mr Mbeki describing Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as an "embarrassment" who has "no international respect" after she told an international Aids conference in Toronto last month that garlic, beetroot and African potatoes are effective in managing the disease.

Dr Tshabalala-Msimang has also followed Mr Mbeki's lead in questioning the link between HIV and Aids, saying that poverty is the real cause of the disease, and has claimed that life-saving antiretroviral drugs are dangerous.

"To deny that HIV causes Aids is farcical in the face of the scientific evidence; to promote ineffective, immoral policies on HIV/Aids endangers lives; to have as health minister a person who now has no international respect is an embarrassment to the South African government," said the letter.

"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 81 signatories to the letter include Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of HIV as the cause of Aids, the Nobel laureate and biologist, David Baltimore, and leading scientists and academics from the US, France, Britain and South Africa specialising in Aids research.

The letter is only the latest demand for the minister's removal after Aids activists and scientists were outraged at the views she expressed in Toronto and a display of vegetables as part of the treatment for Aids at the government stand. No antiretroviral medicines were on display.

"Dr Tshabalala-Msimang expressed pseudo-scientific views about the management of HIV infection. Furthermore, the government exhibition featured garlic, lemons and African potatoes, with the implication that these dietary elements are alternative treatments for HIV infection. There is no scientific evidence to support such views," the letter said.

"Antiretrovirals are the only medications currently available that alleviate the consequences of HIV infection. The evidence supporting these statements is overwhelming and beyond dispute."

It is estimated that more than 5 million people are infected with HIV in South Africa, about one in 10 of the population. Doctors say more than 500,000 of those infected, whose health has deteriorated to the point where they need antiretroviral drugs, are not receiving them.

The scientists' letter commended the health ministry's plan for dealing with HIV/Aids but said it has fallen short of targets for providing treatment and so "many people are dying unnecessarily".

The clear implication is that while officials and scientists recognise how to deal with the Aids crisis, politicians are undermining the strategy.

However, the letter only touched indirectly on Mr Mbeki's responsibility for confusing and contradictory Aids policies. He is widely thought to have appointed Dr Tshabalala-Msimang because she was willing to vigorously challenge the established scientific consensus on Aids.

The scientists also endorsed bitter criticism by the UN's Aids envoy to Africa, Stephen Lewis, who described the South African government's response to the pandemic as "obtuse, dilatory and negligent" and worthy of a "lunatic fringe".

Mr Mbeki has resisted other calls for his health minister's dismissal. Dr Tshabalala-Msimang has responded to previous criticism of her statements in Toronto by saying traditional medicines were part of government's Aids programme.

Last week, the South African Medical Association accused her of breaking the law by making unproven claims about the effectiveness of alternative treatments.

The scientists' letter also criticised the use of unproven remedies on sale in South Africa and the minister's support for them. "We condemn all those who profit from this type of quackery at the expense of the sick and dying," they said.


The South African government's Aids policies are rooted in President Mbeki's questioning of the scientific conclusion that HIV causes Aids. Five years ago, he gave a speech in which he suggested Aids reinforced the view of Africans as "germ carriers". He came to be identified with "denialists" who say Aids is an outcome of colonialism and apartheid. Malegapuru Makgoba, a leading Aids scientist, said the government's refusal to supply antiretroviral drugs amounted to "genocide". Mr Mbeki eventually agreed to offer the drugs but has not renounced his views.