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Controversial AIDS scientist prompts outcry

Protest planned over South African government's hiring of AIDS dissident.

By | March 13, 2003

CAPE TOWN — A campaign of civil disobedience is to take place in South Africa next week to protest against the government's hiring of Roberto Giraldo — a controversial scientist who denies that HIV causes AIDS.

Although health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, insisted that Giraldo will not be a ministerial advisor but is simply giving advice on nutrition and HIV/AIDS, the appointment brought howls of protest from AIDS advocates and politicians.

Nonkosi Khumalo, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign, told The Scientist, "Appointing a denialist shows that the health minister still does not believe that HIV causes AIDS. There should be a vote of no confidence in the health minister. She is a disappointment as a doctor."

Giraldo believes that antiretroviral drugs cause, rather than slow, the progression to AIDS. On his website he says: "There are many scientific facts indicating that … HIV is not the cause of AIDS, that HIV may not even exist as a virus; that what is called AIDS is a toxic and nutritional syndrome; that all antiretroviral drugs are highly toxic to humans; that the antiretroviral medications can by themselves cause AIDS."

Earlier this year Giraldo was invited by the South African government to brief a meeting of African experts on how to combat the HIV virus, which infects 4.7 million South Africans. The news this week that he would be again consulted on a regular basis was seen as another sign that the health department continues to believe the disease is caused by nutritional deficiencies, despite last year publicly accepting the link between HIV and AIDS.

Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in a statement, "We believe that good nutrition is critical in the management of most of the infectious and chronic diseases. It serves as a solid foundation, not a substitute, for medical intervention including anti-retroviral therapy."

She said that Giraldo would be working on updating nutritional guidelines for people living with AIDS in line with the recent manual published by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The manual states that a good diet is one of the simplest means of helping people living with HIV/AIDS, and may even help delay the progression of the deadly virus.

But Khumalo said: "Yes, nutrition is an important issue, but as part of a package with treatment. The government is doing nothing about treatment. Why don't they appoint an advisor on anti-retrovirals?"

Every day 600 people die of HIV related illness in South Africa. Anti-retroviral treatment is only available to HIV-positive pregnant women and for post-exposure prophylaxis for rape survivors.

The Treatment Action Campaign has called on the government to sign up to the NEDLAC framework agreement for a national treatment and prevention plan for combating HIV/AIDS.

The failure of the government to participate in, or respond to, the NEDLAC agreement prompted a protest march on February 14, 2003 in Cape Town that was attended by 10,000 people.

The Treatment Action Campaign is now planning a civil disobedience campaign starting on March 21, Human Rights Day. This will involve illegally occupying government offices and illegally importing generic drugs from other countries.

Full results of a cost–benefit analysis released last week showed that a national prevention and treatment programme for HIV/AIDS would save three million lives and cost no more than R18 billion (US$2.2 billion) a year by 2015.

The research, commissioned by the Treatment Action Campaign and conducted by the University of Cape Town, calculated that a national programme, including anti-retroviral treatment would cost R224 million (US$28 million) to implement, rise to R6.8 billion (US$800 million) annually in 2007, and peak at R18.1 billion (US$2.2 billion) in 2015. These costs would be reduced substantially if the price of anti-retrovirals came down.

The research was presented to Parliament's health portfolio committee last month. The MPs heard that the social benefits of a treatment programme would far outweigh its costs. A full treatment and counselling programme would halve the number of AIDS orphans from two million to one million by 2015.

Two weeks ago minister of finance Trevor Manuel announced a R3.3 billion (US$400 million) budget allocation for HIV/AIDS programmes. This would be enough to make a start on an anti-retroviral programme. There has, however, been no indication on how this money would be spent.

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