Tue, Aug 21, 2007 - Page 6 News List

South Africa's AIDS dilemma gets personal

`LIABILITY' The country's controversial health minister has been accused of hiding her drinking problem to obtain a liver transplant and of robbing patients in the 1970s


South African Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been vilified as an accomplice to genocide for failing to provide treatment for the millions of people with HIV. She has been the subject of international ridicule for promoting garlic and vitamins as an alternative to AIDS drugs. And she has survived it all.

But on Sunday the minister was facing fresh revelations that may prove more damaging, as the bitter political battle over AIDS turned personal. Tshabalala-Msimang was accused of abusing her position to hide chronic alcoholism and obtain a liver transplant earlier this year, and of robbing patients under anesthetic while a hospital superintendent in the 1970s.

The opposition called on President Thabo Mbeki to sack his health minister, calling her a "moral and legal liability" after Johannesburg's Sunday Times newspaper reported that Tshabalala-Msimang and her doctors hid her drinking problem so she could receive a donor liver in March from a teenage suicide victim, even though she had not given up alcohol -- normally a prerequisite for the operation.

The paper reported that the minister needed the transplant because alcohol had destroyed her liver and that usually a woman of her age -- 66 -- who had failed to give up drinking before the operation would not have qualified for an organ. The article claims that doctors and staff knew Tshabalala-Msimang was drinking immediately before the transplant.

The paper also revealed that Tshabalala-Msimang had been convicted of stealing from patients and banned from Botswana as an undesirable alien for 10 years when she worked as a hospital superintendent there in 1976. She was caught after taking a watch from an anesthetized patient and wearing it to work. The police searched her home and found other stolen items, including hospital property.

The accusations came as the minister was already on the defensive after the leaking of medical records that allegedly show her bodyguards smuggled wine and whisky into hospital during an operation on her shoulder two years ago.

Increasing scrutiny of her conduct has become politically charged because Mbeki backed her in a power struggle over AIDS policy earlier this month by sacking her deputy, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who had won wide support from the medical establishment for a more scientific approach to the virus that infects about one in six South African adults and kills hundreds of thousands each year.

The dismissal caused uproar among doctors and AIDS activists, who describe the health minister as a national embarrassment because of her views on AIDS.

The leader of the official Democratic Alliance opposition, Helen Zille, on Sunday demanded that Mbeki sack his health minister.

"For a long time now, the health minister has been a political and moral liability," she said.

Tshabalala-Msimang did not immediately respond to the latest accusations. She described the earlier claims that she smuggled alcohol into hospital as "garbage" but in a court action to recover the medical records did not deny them, instead saying they were based on confidential information.

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