Mbeki demotes Aids minister who urged 'garlic' treatment

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Faced with mounting pressure to rethink the South African government's policy on fighting Aids, President Thabo Mbeki has finally agreed to sideline his Minister of Health who achieved notoriety through her promotion of home-grown HIV treatments.

Although Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang retains her portfolio as minister of health, she has been relieved of the responsibility of leading the government's efforts to prevent transmission of the disease.

Mr Mbeki's climbdown comes after 80 scientists and Aids experts signed a petition calling on him to fire Dr Tshabalala-Msimang for endorsing unorthodox treatments in a country with the world's highest number of people infected with Aids. At least five million of South Africa's 45 million population are infected with the disease, and about 2,000 die from Aids-related illnesses every day.

Describing her policies as "immoral", the scientists called for "the immediate removal of Dr Tshabalala-Msimang as Minister of Health and for an end to the disastrous, pseudo-scientific policies which have characterised the South African government's response to HIV/Aids".

Dr Tshabalala-Msimang became infamous for her repeated questioning of the efficacy of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, instead promoting the use of garlic, lemon, beetroot and African potatoes as a more effective way of treating Aids.

South Africa came under severe criticism at the recent international Aids conference in Toronto after Dr Tshabalala-Msimang openly said that the methods were preferable to ARVs.

Representatives of the country's prominent anti-Aids group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), who were also attending the conference, were so enraged by the minister's pronouncements that they abandoned their country's stand. Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy on Aids, dismissed her opinions as characteristic of a "lunatic fringe".

Dr Tshabalala-Msimang accused those behind the petition of running a campaign aimed at misrepresenting the government's programme to fight the disease. It was, her office said, an effort to "undermine the image of South Africa's response to HIV and Aids, both locally and abroad".

Mr Mbeki came under fire in 2001 for saying he believed that poverty - and not HIV - was the chief cause of Aids. It took court action from the TAC for the government to start distributing ARVs - and activists still complain that the amount of drugs available covers a tiny fraction of those in need.

A new inter-ministerial committee involving five ministries will oversee the development and implementation of a comprehensive campaign against HIV, the government has said. Central to the plan would be to re-energise the South African National Aids Council (SANAC).

Themba Maseko, a government spokesman, said the challenge of dealing with HIV and Aids was "bigger than any individual, minister or department". He said it was false to assume that the Aids problem would go away if Dr Tshabalala-Msimang were removed from the government.