This week, South African health minister Barbara Hogan got her country up to speed with the rest of the world with one statement: “We know that HIV causes AIDS” [Time]. The country’s new health minister has been in office for less than a month, but she has already broken with the health policies of the previous government, which questioned the scientific consensus on HIV and AIDS, and discouraged the use of life-saving AIDS drugs.
Her pronouncement at an international AIDS vaccine conference 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 [AP]. Tshabalala-Msimang earned the nickname “Dr. Beetroot” from frustrated activists for her recommendations.
Hogan became health minister when President Mbeki resigned in September and was replaced by Kgalema Motlanthe, who will hold the post until the general elections in 2009. Motlanthe immediately named Hogan as his health minister, a move that has been hailed by activists, academics, and international health workers alike. At the conference, a South African university official said that for the first time in years, South African academics were free to “state that HIV causes Aids without getting threats”. “It is a liberating experience,” he said at the conference. “You don’t know how long we suffered in bondage” [BBC News].
In her speech this week, Hogan also said that South Africans “desperately need” an HIV vaccine, and challenged vaccine researchers to work harder and faster. But recent vaccine trials have shown disappointing results, and several scientists at the conference had a bleak assessment of progress. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it was impossible to predict whether scientists would ever be able to develop an effective vaccine, as they have for other killers such as smallpox and measles. “Will there be a guarantee that we will get a vaccine in the classical sense? Realistically you can’t say that,” Fauci said. “But that doesn’t mean we are going to give up trying” [AP].
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