Beetroot battle at world AIDS conference

Written by Health-e News

Beetroot, lemon, garlic and African potato were at the heart of a bitter conflict between Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and AIDS activists over government’€™s AIDS programme at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto over the past week.

From the start of the conference, it was clear that Tshabalala-Msimang was going to repeat the controversial behaviour she has displayed at the past three international AIDS conferences, by once again emphasizing nutrition as an ‘€œalternative’€ to antiretroviral medication.


South Africa’€™s exhibition stall was dominated by woven baskets of plump lemons, wilted beetroot, African potatoes and clumps of garlic.

A staff member hastily added his own two bottles of antiretroviral medication after journalists asked why ARVs ‘€“ also part of government’€™s treatment plan ‘€“ were not on show.


Shortly afterwards, Tshabalala-Msimang opened the stall and said it was important to allow people in the rural areas to make up their own minds on whether they ‘€œpreferred alternative medicine or antiretrovirals’€.

Dr Harry Moultrie of the paediatric Aids clinic at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, who attended the opening, said the inclusion of the foods at the South African stall was ‘€œdespicable’€.


He added that there was ‘€œno scientific evidence showing that any of the products were effective’€ against HIV.


By the end of the week, the stall was in tatters after being trashed by Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) supporters chanting ‘€œFire Manto now’€.

South Africa took top spot in many guises at the world’€™s biggest AIDS, but usually for the wrong reasons.


Our country had the highest HIV/AIDS deaths in the world last year ‘€“ 320 000 – and it has the second highest number of people living with AIDS in the world, over five million.


At a special conference session devoted to the price of political inaction, the TAC’€™s Mark Heywood said South Africa’€™s response to HIV was presently in chaos with only 17 percent of people with AIDS receiving treatment while an outbreak of multi-drug resistant TB in KwaZulu-Natal was going unmanaged.


‘€œThere has been an absence of moral, political and strategic leadership from the African National Congress and the government.


‘€œ(Our government) has been unique in the way it has sought to make a virtue out of its refusal to be pressured into responding to AIDS. This has very directly facilitated the spread of the HIV epidemic,’€ Heywood told the large audience.


He accused Tshabalala-Msimang of repeatedly promoting and juxtaposing the value of traditional medicine as opposed to ‘€œwestern medicine’€, thus ‘€œcreating a pseudo politics around ‘€œWestern vs African’€ traditions of health care.


In an earlier session, former US president Bill Clinton was asked to comment on the fact that Tshabalala-Msimang ‘€œhas been particularly keen on nutrition, encouraging olive oil and African potato and things like that to boost the immune system.’€


‘€œImproving nutrition will increase our capacity to deal with HIV and AIDS, as long as it’€™s not a smokescreen of denial, but another part of what it takes to give people a healthy life,’€ Clinton replied.


Stephen Lewis, United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told Health-e he believed that the political indifference in South Africa was a hurdle to people accessing treatment in South Africa.


‘€œGauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape are doing moderately well, but [the treatment programme] would be happening far more quickly if the political leadership drove it.,’€ he said.


HIV/AIDS Director at the World Health Organisation Dr Kevin de Kock said he struggled to understand why African leaders were resistant to making HIV/AIDS the single most important issue that they were dealing with.


Indian doctor Dr Jaya Shreedar said she was yet to hear anything good about South Africa.


‘€œYou guys are like a worst practice example,’€ she said, adding that government officials in India, also under fire for their lax response to the epidemic, were saying that ‘€œwe can’€™t be as bad as what the South African health minister is.’€


Meanwhile, Gregg Gonsalves of the AIDS Rights Alliance of Southern Africa said there was a sense that the South African government had moved beyond denial to betrayal.


‘€œThe virus of denialism is seeping around the region to neighbouring countries such as Lesotho. If South Africa cannot scale-up (treatment) what does it say to leaders in the rest of the region?’€ he asked.


An angry Tshabalala-Msimang later said she didn’€™t mind being called ‘€œDr Beetroot’€ and said she had never attended an AIDS conference where South Africa had not been bashed by its own media.


‘€œPeople say ‘your stall is great’. I don’t know what they are reporting on at home. We haven’t shocked the world, we have told the truth,’€ she told South Africans at a party at the home of Nogolide Nojozi, the country’s consul-general in Toronto on Tuesday night.

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