May 11, 2009

S African Health Minister Replaced By Obscure Local Doctor

Jacob Zuma, the new South African president, has now replaced the health minister who was praised by campaigners for reversing the country's calamitous policy on Aids, with an obscure local medical doctor.

Announcing his first cabinet, Zuma demoted Barbara Hogan from the health ministry to the less influential public enterprises portfolio.

Medical doctor Aaron Motsoaledi, now serving as a provincial education official, will step in as the new health minister Monday, marking the second change in the position in less than a year.

Some analysts had anticipated that Hogan would be let go after her public criticism of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership earlier this year for refusing to allow the Dalai Lama in a conference on peace and reconciliation.

The outgoing minister Barbara Hogan had been applauded for being the voice of dissention from the denialist policies of former president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabala-Msimang, who was nicknamed Dr Beetroot after promoted lemons, garlic and beets as treatments for AIDS over life-saving drugs.

Zuma immediately sought to assuage concerns about the appointment, calling Motsoaledi "a well-known doctor who has handled this department at a provincial level in the past."

"He is a very energetic and able comrade so I don't think you should be very worried," Zuma added.

Activists caution that constantly making changes in a ministry that is already known for its lack of organization would distract from the nation's efforts to ease the suffering of 5.7 million South Africans that live with HIV.

"I have to say that it's very disappointing," said Mark Heywood, speaking for the Treatment Action Campaign pressure group, saying that changes in leadership had also been made on a local level across the country.

"We have an entirely new political team responsible for health at a time where the health system is in critical need of resuscitation and in need of continuity and understanding."

The AIDS epidemic, which kills 1,000 South Africans every day, remains a high sensitive topic for Zuma. He is a polygamist in a country where multiple sex partners has increased rate of infections and was second in command to Mbeki, who was responsible for delaying the roll out of life-saving drugs.

But his greatest offense in the issue of AIDS was during a 2006 trial in which he was acquitted of rape. He claims that he reduced his risk of infection by taking a shower after having sex with his HIV-positive accuser.

The absurdity of his statements has plagued him ever since, despite an apology and his shocking political comeback to the country's top office.

Elizabeth Mills of the University of Cape Town says, "Zuma's 'shower theory' has undermined his authority on HIV/AIDS and raised concerns about his capacity to effectively lead the government in the struggle against HIV/AIDS."

"Zuma has not demonstrated leadership with regards to sexual monogamy nor condom use," she added.

The new president has committed himself to strong AIDS messages but activists want tangible leadership in order to stir powerful action on a nation level.

Laetitia Rispel of the Center for Health Policy at the University of the Witwatersrand says, "I hope we will avoid destructive messages and controversies which detract from combating the HIV epidemic."

Another obstacle will be maintaining funding for the world's largest anti-retroviral drugs program that had nearly 700,000 South Africans on treatment at the end of November.

The government says it intends to step up its fight against HIV/AIDS by $112 million and double treatment over the next three years. This may be a difficult promise to follow through with as Zuma's team faces the country's first recession in 17 years.

"I look forward to seeing how he translates rhetoric into practice as our new president. Time will tell," Mills said.

"Should Zuma prove us wrong in our cautious optimism, then South Africans will stand up together and fight until we are heard. We've done it before, and we'll do it again."


Image Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding from cultured lymphocyte. This image has been colored to highlight important features. CDC