U.N. AIDS Envoy Criticizes South Africa

Clare Nullis, AP, Nov. 3

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—A top U.N. AIDS envoy said Thursday that poorer nations were doing better than South Africa in fighting the disease and accused its health minister of preventing him from working in the country, which has the most HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world.

In an Associated Press interview, Stephen Lewis said he had been unable to carry out his professional responsibilities in South Africa for the past year because of differences with Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang over comments he made at an AIDS conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2004.

He also accused the government of moving slowly in providing antiretroviral treatment to AIDS sufferers, saying much poorer African countries like Lesotho and Malawi had acted much quicker.

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South Africa has an estimated 6.3 million people living with HIV/AIDS—the highest total in the world. More than 600 people die every day of the disease. Nearly 30 percent of pregnant women are infected with the virus; in the hardest hit province, KwaZuluNatal, that figure is as high as 41 percent.

Even though the disease now is one of the main causes of death among young adults and infants, the government’s program to provide antiretroviral medicines to people in advanced stages of AIDS is still in its relative infancy.

The health minister has repeatedly voiced her mistrust of antiretroviral medicines and espoused the benefits of garlic, olive oil and lemon.

On Thursday, she told a press conference she did not know how many people were receiving antiretroviral therapy because the national patient information system was too weak. She said figures from her department showed that at least 50,000 people were receiving the treatment in public clinics, but this did not reflect how many people had dropped off the therapy or died of complications.

Tshabalala-Msimang is under constant fire in South Africa for her views and policies—which many people suspect echo those of President Thabo Mbeki. But in an unusual move for a top U.N. envoy, Lewis went public with his criticism in a forthcoming book of lectures called “Race Against Time.”

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