Scientists call South Africa's AIDS policies immoral

More than 80 international scientists and academics condemned South Africa's AIDS policies as ineffective and immoral and called for the firing of the country's health minister in a letter to President Thabo Mbeki released Wednesday.

The scientists called Tshabalala-Msimang an embarrassment to South Africa and said her activities undermined science. Signatories included American Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and Dr. Robert Gallo, a co-discoverer of the HIV virus that causes AIDS and developer of the first HIV blood test.

They called "for the immediate removal of Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang as Minister of Health and for an end to the disastrous, pseudoscientific policies that have characterized the South African government's response to HIV/AIDS."

With their letter, the scientists joined mounting criticism from AIDS activists and South African opposition parties of Health Minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, often called "Dr. Beetroot" because of her advocacy of the use of beetroot, garlic, lemon and the African potato in the fight against AIDS. Her boss, Mbeki, also has been accused of ignorance and poor judgment in addressing an epidemic that threatens to cripple Africa's economic and diplomatic powerhouse.

The government estimates more than 5.5 million South Africans are HIV positive, a number second only to India and one that amounts to about an eighth of estimated cases worldwide. On average, more than 900 people die of the disease a day in South Africa.

There was no immediate response from the president's office or the health ministry to the call to fire the minister. But the Cabinet recently defended her, saying false information about the country's treatment program was being spread around the world. Tshabalala-Msimang has herself dismissed and ridiculed calls for her resignation.

"My resignation? I haven't thought of it and I am not just about to think about it," she said at a recent news conference.

The government, which did not provide AIDS drugs until a suit by AIDS activists forced it to in 2002, said it has stepped up its programs which it claims recently became the largest in the world. It estimates it treats more than 140,000 people with anti-retroviral drugs in its programs.

But the scientists estimated said 500,000 South African without access to the drugs now need them to survive. And they noted the government estimate was less than half of the target of 380,000 it set in 2003, reports AP.