Sarah Boseley, Guardian (London), May 6, 2005
Campaigners yesterday condemned remarks by South Africa’s health minister, who made clear her preference for the health-giving properties of garlic, lemon, olive oil and beetroot over the drugs that the World Health Organisation wants provided to save lives in the population worst-hit by Aids in the world.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told a news conference in Cape Town that the government would not be pressured into meeting targets set by the WHO and UNAIDS, the joint UN programme on the disease. Far too little was known about the side effects, she said, echoing comments some years ago by President Thabo Mbeki, who doubted whether HIV caused Aids.
“I don’t want to be pushed or pressurised by a target of 3 million people on anti-retrovirals by 2005,” she said, referring to the UNAIDS and WHO target for the developing world.
“WHO set that target themselves. They didn’t consult us. I don’t see why South Africa today must be the scapegoat for not reaching the target.”
Only 700,000 people in developing countries are so far on treatment. The WHO has identified South Africa as one of the countries that could derail the programme. It has the highest number of people with the virus in the world — 5.3 million — and between 600 and 1,000 people die of Aids every day.
Yesterday Ms Tshabalala-Msimang said that 42,000 people were now getting drugs in the public sector, but the minister, sometimes called Dr Garlic by critics, extolled nutrition over drugs.
“Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon — not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin but they also protect you from disease,” she said, adding that beetroot was also a vital ingredient in any diet.
Aids drugs held risks, she said. “When we were being pressurised to use anti-retrovirals, we did warn of the side effects. Nobody reports to me how many have fallen off the programme or died of the side effects.” Campaigners condemned her remarks.
“It is a shame that a minister of health who is expected to provide leadership should be spending time arguing rather than taking action,” said Leonard Okello, Action Aid’s head of HIV/Aids programmes. While good nutrition was important, drugs kept people alive.
“Every medicine has some side effects — even food has side effects — and the anti-retrovirals are being improved all the time.”