South Africa's new health minister broke dramatically on Monday from a decade of discredited government policies on AIDS, declaring that the disease was unquestionably caused by HIV and must be treated with conventional medicine.
Health Minister Barbara Hogan's pronouncement marked the official end to 10 years of denial about the link between HIV and AIDS by former President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
Activists also accused Tshabalala-Msimang of spreading confusion about AIDS through her public mistrust of antiretroviral medicines and promotion of nutritional remedies such as garlic, beetroot, lemon, olive oil and the African potato.
“We know that HIV causes AIDS,” Hogan told an international AIDS vaccine conference. Hogan became health minister two weeks ago after Mbeki was turned out of office by his party.
“It was imperative to get ahead of the curve of this epidemic 10 years ago,” she said. “We all have lost ground. It's even more imperative now that we make HIV prevention work; we desperately need an effective HIV vaccine.”
She was applauded and praised at the opening ceremony of an international AIDS vaccine conference, attended by international scientists and public health officials who were frequently spurned by the former health minister.
“A breath of fresh air,” said Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise.
Tshabalala-Msimang's views earned her the nicknames “Dr. Garlic” and “Dr. Beetroot” and made her a favorite target for cartoonists.
South Africa now has the world's highest number of people with HIV, counting some 5.4 million people as infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
Unlike Tshabalala-Msimang, Hogan was frank about the cost of the epidemic which kills nearly 1,000 South Africans a day and infects about the same number.
She said more than half of all South African public hospital admissions are AIDS-related and more than one-quarter of the national health budget goes to fighting the disease.