SA ‘irresponsible’ on AIDS

In a recent interview with a British newspaper Madlala Routledge said the government’s stance on the treatment of the pandemic had caused confusion across the country, and was likely to result in several preventable deaths.

Madlala Routledge said decisions made “at the very top” of government had taken the country’s fight against HIV/Aids “several steps back”, causing damage that would be difficult to correct.

“What has happened in South Africa, which is sad and tragic . . . people are confused about treatment . . . and this has come about because of the confusing messages coming from the very top. If I use the example of traditional medicine, I think it was irresponsible of leaders to say people have a choice . . . because how do those people choose when they don’t have the knowledge that is backed up by science?” Madlala Routledge told the paper

The outspoken deputy minister’s sentiments are believed to have been a direct criticism of Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s views that South Africans living with HIV/Aids should embrace nutritional and traditional treatment methods to counter the pandemic.

Tshabalala-Msimang recently courted the ire of Aids workers and international scientists when she advocated the use of nutritional methods and the use of traditional medicines to complement antiretroviral therapy as a method for treating HIV/Aids. The controversial Health minister advocated the use of the African Potato, garlic and beetroot as immune boosters that could be used to fight HIV/Aids.

However, civic organisations working in HIV/Aids have argued that the government’s position could encourage a perception that nutrition and traditional medicines work as a substitute for ARVs and not that they complement them.

The Aids workers say the minister’s sentiments could result in people delaying in seeking the urgent medical treatment that could save their lives.

Asked about her advocacy of traditional treatment methods recently, Tshabalala-Msimang insisted that HIV positive people who used African potato had shown an improvement and had said so.

“When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say no, I don’t think you are feeling better. I must rather go and do science on you?” she asked.

But her deputy argues that the minister’s statements were careless.

“It is absolutely irresponsible to say to people who are desperate, who want to live, ‘Oh, go to your traditional healer if you want’, because what traditional healers do we know of who know how to treat Aids? I don’t know of any in my country,” Madlala-Routledge told the British paper.

She said President Mbeki’s recent appointment of Professor Herbert Vilakazi as chairperson of a government task team on traditional medicines would add to the confusion over treatment of HIV/Aids, particularly if the task team’s role was not clearly defined.

“You see, in relation to the president himself, he has recently announced a task team on traditional medicine and for me there’s nothing wrong with that, as long the task team understands its duty is to research or to assist in research on traditional medicine.

“But if there is (a misunderstanding) . . . that the task team is saying people can use traditional medicine, that is a problem, because what brings about that concern for me is that Vilakazi is chairperson of the task team on traditional medicine and . . . Vilakazi . . . is marketing an untested product, Ubhejane, so that’s a concern because once people see ‘Oh, Professor Vilakazi has now been appointed by the president to be chairperson of this task team and Professor Vilakazi is saying take Ubhejane to cure Aids’ ‘ you know what I mean, it’s very confusing to ordinary people,” she reportedly said.

Controversy has surrounded the marketing of the drug Ubhejane as a mthod of treating HIV/Aids, with Aids workers and international scientists arguing that the product has not been scientifically tested.

While the government has battled to give the impression that it is united in its stance against the ravaging pandemic, Madlala Routledge’s sentiments have raised concerns that haggling within government could be affecting the country’s progress in the fighting HIV and Aids.

South Africa recently stepped up its HIV/Aids treatment campaign, with government officials saying close to a quarter of a million people are now receiving anti-retroviral treatment under a government programme.

The government said slightly more than 235 000 people were now receiving treatment under its expansive antiretroviral therapy programme, an increase of almost 60 000 people between June and September this year.

Health officials said the country now had one of the fastest growing HIV/Aids treatment programmes in the world and would continue to expand its treatment programme to provide therapy to as many people as possible. But despite the government’s efforts, Aids activists in the country believe the government still needs to do more and that the country’s antiretroviral programme is not as broad as the government says it is.

December 2006
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