Researchers and diplomats attending the conference said that the South African government remains “obtuse” and “negligent” in its approach to Aids and should be denounced.
Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy on Aids, told the closing session: “It is the only country in Africa, amongst all the countries I have traversed in the last five years, whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment.”
Thabo Mbeki’s government was openly criticised by speakers at the conference for denying that the human immunodeficiency virus is a cause of Aids and for its resistance to offering HIV drugs to its people.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the South African health minister, is well known throughout South Africa for promoting traditional cures such as garlic, beetroot and lemon.
Lewis said: “It is the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state.”
“Why it is that a government can continue to remain in power … despite evidence that it has abysmally failed to deliver all the essentials to its population”
Dr Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill university Aids centre in Montreal and a conference organiser, echoed this sentiment.
“We as a world have sat back for far too long, watching South Africa continue to deteriorate in terms of thousands of people dying of HIV,” he said.
“Why it is that a government can continue to remain in power … despite evidence that it has abysmally failed to deliver all the essentials to its population, I do not understand. It is something that burns a hole through my heart.”
Progress in treatment
The conference highlighted progress in treatment of HIV patients, with more than a million people in Africa getting life-saving drugs. But 76 per cent of the world’s HIV patients who need HIV drugs still do not receive them, speakers noted.
Prevention methods – including circumcision of men, microbicides for women, and the use of drugs to prevent infection – may offer what Bill Gates, the founder and former chief executive of Microsoft, called a “turning point” in the pandemic but are far from being fully studied or available.
Lewis said a crisis was looming in funding Aids prevention, research and treatment as funding was only $8.3billion last year.
Lewis said: “But we need $15billion this year and $18billion next year and $22billion in 2008. We’re billions and billions short of those targets.”
Another big problem is a shortage of healthcare workers in the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. The World Health Organisation estimated that more than four million health workers are needed across the world to cope with HIV.
Members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) ransacked the South African health ministry’s stand at this week’s conference in Toronto in protest at the government’s policies on Aids.
Tshabalala-Msimang said that South Africa has the biggest Aids treatment programme in the world, but that she has been singled out by Aids activists and blamed for the government’s initial reluctance to introduce antiretroviral drugs.
An ANC statement said: “The ANC reaffirms its support for government’s comprehensive plan for management, care and treatment of HIV and Aids, and for an approach that aims to combat HIV and Aids in an all-embracing and integrated manner.”
TAC has in the past repeatedly been at loggerheads with Mbeki’s government over its perceived slow reaction to one of the world’s biggest HIV epidemics.
In the Toronto protest TAC activists and supporters smashed the health ministry’s display of garlic and other foods along with drugs, local media reported.
One in nine South Africans is estimated to be infected with the virus, which is incurable and fatal but which can be kept in check by drugs. Up to 35,000 people die per month from the virus because they are not receiving treatment, according to analysts who believe that this figure could rise to 40,000 within the next five years.