AIDS crisis? What AIDS crisis?

South African President Thabo Mbeki sacks his deputy health minister, leaving HIV/AIDS patients back in the hands of "Dr. Beetroot."

Published August 14, 2007 1:31PM (EDT)

Remember how South Africa seemed as if it was finally addressing its HIV/AIDS crisis? Not so fast. It looks like the same man who insisted that HIV does not cause AIDS and supported the idea that beet root and garlic are more effective than antiretroviral medicines is at it again: According to the Independent," President Thabo Mbeki just fired the woman who was one of the biggest critics of the government's misguided approach.

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was South Africa's deputy health minister and had devoted a good part of her career to criticizing Mbeki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (the major proponent of the garlic/beet root treatment plan). She'd supported the idea that government officials be tested for HIV (thus acting as role models for the rest of South Africa), and had also co-designed a plan to accelerate the delivery of AIDS drugs to patients so that the number of people on treatments would triple by 2011. According to the Independent, that plan is now in danger.

Let's just take a second to reflect on these facts, quoted from the Independent: "More than 1,000 people a day in South Africa die of AIDS. One in 10 is HIV positive, which is significantly higher than anywhere else in the world. And 1,400 people are newly infected with HIV every day. But only a third of those who need life-saving AIDS drugs receive them." What's more, South Africa has 1.2 million AIDS orphans, and is losing teachers at a rate of 14 per week.

One would think, then, that it would make sense to have given Madlala-Routledge a raise, or an increased budget, or basically anything you could possibly provide to help her get drugs to people suffering from the disease and educate the public about its causes and treatments -- after all, South Africa didn't even provide free drugs to patients until 2004. Instead, she's out of a job, and more influence is presumably being shifted back toward Tshabalala-Msimang (or "Dr. Beetroot," as she's called by critics).

Madlala-Routledge supposedly earned her dismissal by speaking at an AIDS conference in Madrid without Mbeki's permission. But I mean, please. Jeopardizing the health of an entire country because of a personal transgression (if indeed that's what happened) is ridiculous. And according to the Independent, Health Ministry officials are starting to again draw a distinction between HIV/AIDS and "HIV and AIDS" (with the latter phrasing suggesting that the two are totally separate diseases). In short, things are not looking good.

At this point, it's not entirely clear how much of Madlala-Routledge's work is going to be reversed. For the sake of South Africa, here's hoping that there's someone in the government to take over her role.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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