Mon, Aug 28, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Critics call for S African health minister's resignation

AFP , JOHANNESBURG

South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang addresses the Johannesburg Press Club on Friday.

PHOTO: AFP

South Africa's Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, called "Dr Beetroot" for her championing of vegetables in the fight against AIDS, is facing an increasing number of calls to resign, both at home and abroad.

International frustration at the government's policies in a country where 5.5 million are infected with HIV, boiled over spectacularly earlier this month when the UN's top envoy for AIDS in Africa denounced what he called "theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state."

Stephen Lewis's criticism at an international AIDS conference in Canada, where he accused the government of being "obtuse, dilatory and negligent" in its distribution of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), is echoed both by AIDS campaigners and the opposition in Pretoria.

Tshabalala-Msimang however appears determined to weather the firestorm and there is little to suggest that she is going to be cut loose by President Thabo Mbeki, who has himself in the past questioned whether AIDS is caused by HIV.

The minister has been a long-time exponent of a diet of beetroot, garlic and lemons to fight HIV, an approach scientists say is worthless and campaigners say can delude poor people into believing there is a quick, cheap fix.

"The minister has continuously shown that she does not have any confidence in ARVs as a method of treatment for HIV-positive people," said Patricia de Lille, leader of the opposition Independent Democrats, who called for Tshabalala-Msimang's resignation last week.

"She continuously wants to pretend as if her method -- which is garlic and lemon and beetroot -- is a replacement for ARVs, while there is no scientific evidence that that is the case," de Lille told reporters.

"If you look at the opinion of the world experts and the public, there is general consensus that the time has come for Mbeki now to intervene and replace her," she said.

As the main AIDS lobby, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) began a program of civil disobedience on Thursday.

Six opposition parties signed a petition to demand Tshabalala-Msimang's dismissal, saying her "bizarre ideas" had undermined the fight against AIDS and caused "unnecessary loss of life."

The health minister rejected the criticism aimed at her by Lewis "with contempt" and denounced de Lille for her "ignorance."

"My resignation? I haven't even thought of it," she said in a press conference on Friday night.

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