August 23, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 2
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U.S. official praises S. Africa’s AIDS plan

Celean Jacobson

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The top U.S. health official praised South Africa’s new national AIDS plan on Sunday, but sidestepped questions about the dismissal of a deputy minister seen as a driving force behind the country’s program.

South Africa’s five-year plan, launched earlier this year, aims to reduce the number of new HIV infections and to extend treatment to 80 percent of those with AIDS by 2011.

South Africa “has constructed a good plan,” Mike Leavitt, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, said at the start of his visit. “Now it must be executed in a way that makes good on the prospects it offers and the hope it can provide.”

Each day, nearly 1,000 people die of AIDS in South Africa and an estimated 1,400 are newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes the disease. The government has said it is concerned about the increasing costs of anti-retroviral drugs.

Leavitt was on a four-nation tour to highlight U.S. health care programs in Africa, with a focus on HIV/AIDS and malaria. His visit follows President Bush’s call to Congress to double the initial $15 billion funding of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

The program helps provide treatment for 1.1 million people worldwide, with more than a million in Africa. But it has been criticized for emphasizing abstinence and fidelity over the use of condoms in its prevention efforts.

The U.S. has invested $600 million this year in South Africa, where an estimated 5.4 million people are infected with the AIDS virus.

There is concern the government’s plan could be undermined after South African President Thabo Mbeki — who has long been accused of playing down the AIDS epidemic — fired Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge as deputy health minister.

Madlala-Routledge had won widespread praise for her work in drawing up the new plan. Her boss, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been seen as a destructive force because she has questioned the efficacy of AIDS drugs and instead promoted beets and garlic as a remedy.

Mbeki said he fired Madlala-Routledge because she was incapable of working as part of a team.

Leavitt would not comment on the dismissal, but warned that “any country that does not aggressively move” to address the epidemic “will bear the unhappy results.”

Briefing reporters, he said he would not be meeting with Tshabalala-Msimang as he had been informed she would be out of the country, and instead would meet with the minister for social development and officials from the health department.

Leavitt left South Africa on Tuesday. Next, he will travel to Mozambique, Tanzania and Rwanda.

(Associated Press)

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