SA shrugs off calls to fire minister on AIDS

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa vowed on Thursday to step up its fight against HIV and shrugged off calls for the dismissal of its controversial health minister, who promotes garlic and lemon as a treatment for AIDS.

More than 80 international scientists this week called for

South African President Thabo Mbeki to fire Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for promoting unorthodox treatments in a country with one of the world’s highest HIV rates.

The cabinet pledged to step up its fight against HIV in a statement, but government spokesman Themba Maseko said ministers had not discussed whether Tshabalala-Msimang should go.

“The cabinet does not discuss the hiring or firing of ministers,” he said.

SAPA news agency quoted Maseko as saying “the challenge of dealing with HIV and AIDS … is bigger than any individual, minister or department,” and that it was false to assume that “if the minister were axed, the problem would go away”.

Activists accuse Mbeki’s government of acting too slowly to curb South Africa’s HIV pandemic, which affects one in nine people in Africa’s richest country.

Criticism has mounted since last month’s global AIDS conference in Toronto, where South Africa was criticised for downplaying anti-retroviral drugs and promoting home-grown AIDS treatments.

The cabinet said on Thursday nutrition was not an alternative to ARVs but also stressed the life-prolonging drugs do not cure AIDS.

It called for an end to “political bickering” over HIV and said a committee of ministers would take concrete steps to strengthen South Africa’s response, but did not give details.

The meeting came as U.N. health officials urged South Africa on Thursday to act quickly to stamp out a highly resistant form of tuberculosis that has killed 52 people and threatens its many vulnerable HIV patients. — Reuter