Mon, Sep 03, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Mbeki hails health minister despite protests

`DR. GARLIC' The South African president has stood by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the target of condemnation over her unorthodox views

AP , CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

HIV/Aids action group members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) protest during a meeting at St.Georges Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday. TAC protested in support of axed deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who was fired by South African President Thabo Mbeki for attending an AIDS conference in Spain without permission from the government.

PHOTO: EPA

South African President Thabo Mbeki hailed his embattled health minister as a heroine and likened critics to "wild animals," causing new dismay among AIDS activists demanding the dismissal of a woman dubbed Dr. Beetroot for her promotion of food as a remedy for the disease.

Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu weighed into the increasingly polemical debate about South African AIDS policy, lamenting that "too many died unnecessarily because of bizarre theories held on high," in a thinly veiled reference to the president and his health minister.

In a speech late on Friday, Tutu said that the heroes and heroines killed in the anti-apartheid struggle -- if they were alive today -- would be shocked by the devastation of HIV/AIDS which kills 900 South Africans -- the equivalent of three jumbo jet crashes -- every day.

"They would be distressed by the latest episodes in the saga of a Health Department that has been less than efficient and has presided over the vast deterioration in health standards of our land," said Tutu, often regarded as the moral conscience of the nation.

For years, Mbeki has been accused of downplaying the extent of the AIDS crisis. He has steadfastly stood by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the target of national and international condemnation for her mistrust of antiretroviral medicines and her unorthodox views on the virus that has infected an estimated 5.4 million South Africans -- the highest number in the world.

But his weekly ANC Today newsletter took this support to new heights. Mbeki said that history would honor the minister as "one of the pioneer architects of a South African public health system constructed to ensure that we achieve the objective of health for all our people, and especially the poor."

"In our tradition as the ANC [African National Congress] we do not normally celebrate our heroes and heroines publicly, such as Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, until they have died," he wrote in the online newsletter issued on Friday.

He wrote: "Violating this tradition, I have now written about Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as I have because some, at home and abroad, who did nothing or very little to contribute to the immensely difficult and costly struggle to achieve our liberation, have chosen to sit as judges."

The two have known each other for 45 years and went into exile from the apartheid government together in 1962. Tshabalala-Msimang's husband is the treasurer of the ANC.

Nathan Geffen, policy coordinator of the Treatment Action Campaign, said on Saturday that the activist movement was undeterred and would continue to press for the health minister's dismissal.

Geffen said the minister's failings included: the slow provision of drugs to prevent HIV-positive mothers passing on the virus to their child; delays in giving treatment to people with AIDS and her department's failure to provide proper levels of staffing and expertise.

"The failure to manage the HIV crisis has had a knock-on effect on the management of the entire health system," Geffen said, citing the spread of drug resistant TB -- closely associated with AIDS -- as an example.

He said Tshabalala-Msimang's support for promoters of untested remedies as well as her own public pronouncements had led to confusion and undermined confidence in scientific medicine.

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