South Africa's second national HIV/AIDS conference, bringing together scientists, practitioners, activists, those living with the disease as well policy makers, has opened in Durban.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang angered AIDS activists by once again refusing to endorse AIDS drugs as the key element in treating the disease. Instead she reiterated her view that drugs alone are not sufficient to combat the disease and that good nutrition is an important element of treatment, saying that 90 percent of people who visit AIDS clinics require food supplements.
"And its no wonder therefore that we really have started a campaign also on vegetable gardens, so that people can sustain themselves and be able to get out of the house, pick up a few spinach leaves, and beetroot, garlic, buy a bottle of olive oil," she said.
In addition Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang told a media conference that delegates should also focus their attention on other diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
Her comments infuriated AIDS activist groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign which called for her resignation.
The group says Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang's attitude has contributed to delays in the rollout South Africa's treatment program under which 42,000 people are currently receiving treatment at public health facilities. The Treatment Action Campaign launched a campaign at the conference aimed at compelling the government to provide treatment to 200,000 people living with AIDS by next year.
South Africa has the highest incidence of HIV in the world, with five million believed infected. The disease is currently responsible for one-third of the deaths in the country, even though the infection rate is now slowly declining.
Also at the conference, the National Defense Force announced that nearly one-in-four soldiers has HIV, greatly adding to the burden on the forces which the defense minister has already said are stretched to the maximum. South Africa currently provides peace keeping services in several African countries including Burundi, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The services are engaged in treatment research they hope will in time permit soldiers with HIV/AIDS to perform at peak levels in any type of assignment. The United States has contributed $50 million to the program.