JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) - More than 80 international scientists and academics condemned South Africa's AIDS policies as ineffective and immoral and called for the firing of the health minister in a letter to President Thabo Mbeki released Wednesday.
The scientists called Health Minister Manto 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 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. 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 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 that 500,000 South Africans 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.
Mbeki has previously expressed doubts about the connection between HIV and AIDS and along with his health minister has questioned the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs.
"To deny that HIV causes AIDS is farcical in the face of the scientific evidence; to promote ineffective, immoral policies on HIV/AIDS endangers lives; to have as a health minister a person who now has no international respect is an embarrassment to the South African government," the scientists said.
The group said it was deeply concerned by the proliferation of unproven remedies marketed in South Africa, some with the support of the minister of health.
The noted that at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto last month, the South African government exhibition "featured garlic, lemons and African potatoes, with the implication that these dietary elements are alternative treatments for HIV infection."
The scientists said they endorsed the comments of Stephen Lewis, the U.N. special envoy for AIDS in Africa, who delivered a scathing attack on the South African government during an address at the Toronto conference.
"It is the only country in Africa ... whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment," said Lewis. "It is the only country in Africa whose government continues to promote theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state."
Health Department spokesman Sibani Mngadi said Lewis "is not Africa's messiah" and does not understand South Africa's programs.
According to media reports, 137 South African delegates to the AIDS conference have sought refugee status in Canada, claiming South Africa's AIDS policies put their lives at risk.