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Study refutes
South African health minister's claims that garlic, lemons
are AIDS remedy

Study refutes
South African health minister's claims that garlic, lemons
are AIDS remedy

The Academy of Science of South Africa said Wednesday there was no evidence that foods such as garlic and beetroot were a substitute for AIDS medicine, disputing claims by the country's heath minister.

The report, confirming what other scientists worldwide have long asserted, looked set to increase the pressure on Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has been ridiculed for promoting foods like olive oil, garlic, lemons, and the African potato for people with AIDS while saying antiretroviral drugs should not be considered the only treatment.

The minister is also under fire over her role in the dismissal of her respected deputy and over newspaper allegations that her recent liver transplant may have been the result of alcohol abuse. Recent news reports also said she was banned from Botswana for 10 years in the 1970s after being accused of theft at a hospital.

''The panel has concluded that no food, no component made from food, and no food supplement has been identified in any credible study as an effective alternative to appropriate medication,'' said professor Barry Mendelow, one of the authors of the exhaustive 300-page study.

The 15-member panel said it was apparent that healthy eating did help slow the progression of AIDS and tuberculosis. But it cautioned that the base of reliable evidence about the influence of nutrition on the two diseases was ''woefully small.''

''This contrasts dramatically with the huge cloud of often acrimonious controversy that hangs over the subject and has become a source of widespread concern in, and about, the government, both within and outside the country,'' the panel said.

Controversy about the country's AIDS policy has raged for years, with critics accusing the government of doing too little to slow the epidemic, which affects an estimated 5.4 million South Africans. An estimated 900 people die each day of the disease in South Africa, and some 1,400 are newly infected. A report last year warned that only half the 15-year-olds currently alive would live to celebrate their 60th birthday.

The government in April finalized an ambitious new plan to halve the number of new infections by 2011 and extend treatment and care to 80% of those in need. But AIDS activists have voiced concern about the government's commitment to those targets following the dismissal earlier this month of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who was widely credited with revitalizing the AIDS campaign.

President Thabo Mbeki said he axed the deputy for not working as part of a team. But Madlala-Routledge and other critics say it was because she had fallen afoul of her 66-year-old boss, a close friend of Mbeki's from the anti-apartheid struggle.

Tshabalala-Msimang has attracted titles such as ''Dr. Garlic'' and ''Dr. Beetroot'' for her ideas on AIDS treatment.

''Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon--not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin, but they also protect you from disease,'' she told a news conference in 2005. ''All I am bombarded about is antiretrovirals, antiretrovirals. There are other things we can be assisted in doing to respond to HIV/AIDS in this country."

The Academy of Science disagreed.

''One of our most important findings has been that nutrition is important for general health but is not sufficient to contain either the HIV/AIDS or the tuberculosis epidemic,'' said panel member Dan Ncayiyana, editor of the South African Medical Journal. ''We need a well-nourished nation. But a well-fed population on its own is not going to resist HIV/AIDS without anti-retroviral drugs.''

The report said there might be unknown and unrecognized substances in edible and medicinal plants with beneficial effects.

''However, until these suggested remedies have been proven to do more good than harm the panel cannot support their use,'' it said.

For example, the report said it might be true that garlic helps strengthen the immune system, but it pointed out that the South African HIV Clinicians Society has warned that garlic supplements also had side effects and that garlic might inhibit the absorption of antiretroviral drugs.

Other unconventional treatment strategies identified by the society that ''might be beneficial,'' but with a concern that ''they could be harmful,'' included virgin olive oil, onions, and the African potato, it said.

Tshabalala-Msimang's spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on the report.

The opposition Democratic Alliance renewed calls for Mbeki to sack the minister.

It said the report was ''yet another piece of evidence to contradict the minister's highly public and extremely damaging opinion that good nutrition is of equivalent value to antiretrovirals in treating AIDS.'' (Clare Nullis, AP)

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