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 “alternative” 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 “preferred 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 “despicable”.
He added that there was “no 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 “Fire Manto now”.
South Africa took top spot in many guises at the world’s biggest AIDS conference, 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.
“There has been an absence of moral, political and strategic leadership from the African National Congress and the government.
“(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 “western medicine”, thus “creating a pseudo politics around “Western 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 “has been particularly keen on nutrition, encouraging olive oil and African potato and things like that to boost the immune system.”
“Improving 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, said that he believed that the political indifference in South Africa was a hurdle to people accessing treatment in South Africa.
“Gauteng, 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.
“You 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 “we 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.
“The 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 “Dr Beetroot” and said she had never attended an AIDS conference where South Africa had not been bashed by its own media.
“People 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.