SA health minister unbending

In her first response to widespread criticism over the country’s methods in fighting the ravaging HIV/Aids epidemic, Tshabalala-Msimang said traditional and nutritional methods would continue to be a part of South Africa’s plan to fight Aids.

“The plan recognises the role of traditional medicine and promotes research and development of these medicines,” she said in a statement last week.

The minister has faced massive criticism over her policies on HIV and Aids in recent months, with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) mounting calls for her to resign or be fired for her advocacy of traditional medicines and a recipe of African potatoes, garlic, beetroot and lemons to tackle the disease.

Two weeks ago, the TAC presented a petition to the office of the president requesting him to axe Tshabalala-Msimang from the cabinet for her stance on promoting home grown treatments for the Aids virus.

The petition was signed by more than 80 international scientists and academics and some Aids workers in the country, and called for President Mbeki to take urgent action.

However despite the sentiments of the scientists and criticism from the TAC, the controversial health minister has remained adamant that she will not be pressured into giving up her job.

She accused the TAC of engaging in a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the government’s position in the fight against Aids and trying to “undermine the image of South Africa’s response to HIV and Aids, both locally and abroad”.

According to the minister, the government’s programme will continue to emphasise prevention as the key element of the fight against Aids.

Efforts will also be strengthened towards ensuring that HIV patients are kept healthy.

Despite having one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, confusion has surrounded South Africa ‘s programme towards fighting the disease. Prior to Tshabalala Msimang’s sentiments regarding traditional medicines and nutritional methods, President Thabo Mbeki courted controversy with his views that the link between HIV and Aids was poverty related.

Lack of clarity also regards the issue of whether or not the country’s antiretroviral programme is as broad as the government says it is, amid reports that several people who need ARVs do not have access to them.

At a post cabinet press briefing two weeks ago, government spokesperson Themba Maseko said the government thrust in fighting Aids was based on the belief that it was caused by HIV.

He however said the government felt it needed to be clearer on its policy regarding the epidemic.

Asked whether or not the government did not feel that its focus on traditional and nutritional methods was causing confusion among the public, Maseko said the state’s position was clear.

“At no stage do we say that nutrition is an alternative to treatment,” he said.

The Cabinet has been unanimous in its defence of Tshabalala-Msimang and has said the difficulties in fighting the Aids epidemic have not been because of the health minister.

“The problem of addressing the challenge of HIV and Aids is bigger than any minister’it is a country challenge,” Maseko said.

September 2006
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