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Rare AIDS protest backs S.Africa health minister

Written by: Staff
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JOHANNESBURG, Nov 23 (Reuters) South Africa's embattled health minister received a rare public boost when hundreds of traditional African healers marched in Johannesburg to support her natural treatments for HIV/AIDS.

Several hundred healers, many wrapped in red cloaks and headscarves, praised Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and urged the government to give greater weight to traditional remedies as it battles one of the world's worst AIDS pandemics.

''None of the knowledge that is stolen from traditional healers globally is ever acknowledged and pharmaceutical cartels make a fortune off the backs of traditional health practitioners by making synthetic drugs with massive side effects,'' the group said in a statement yesterday.

Traffic came to a standstill in parts of central Johannesburg to make way for the protest, which saw healers singing, dancing and ululating and carrying placards warning of the dangers of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs -- the only treatment known to slow the progress of AIDS.

''People should be warned about the side effects of ARVs'' one sign read, while another said ''Manto Thumbs Up 4 Good Work''.

Tshabalala-Msimang has been criticised by AIDS activist groups who blame her for what they say is South Africa's dangerously slow response to an HIV/AIDS epidemic which infects more than 5 million of the country's 45 million people.

Tshabalala-Msimang has drawn particular heat for advocating natural remedies including garlic, olive oil and beet root and questioning the central role of ARVs in AIDS programmes.

South Africa's AIDS strategy was a focus of this year's global AIDS conference in Toronto, where UN officials slammed the government for policies one senior official described as ''worthy of the lunatic fringe''.

Since then, Tshabalala-Msimang has been less visible and other officials, including Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, have spoken publicly about the need for South Africa to revamp its approach to the epidemic.

But the feisty health minister -- known to be close to President Thabo Mbeki -- recently retaliated, saying in a letter to members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) she was not giving up the battle.

''Nutrition is critical in prolonging progression from HIV infection to development of AIDS defining conditions ... others chose to interpret this simple and straight-forward statement as suggesting that nutrition might be an alternative to treatment.

It is not,'' she wrote.

REUTERS AKJ VA RAI1049

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