updated 10/13/2008 2:52:05 PM ET 2008-10-13T18:52:05

South Africa’s new health minister asked scientists on Monday to intensify their efforts to find an AIDS vaccine amid widespread gloom over recent research setbacks .

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Health Minister Barbara Hogan said government policies over the past 10 years had failed. Her speech Monday marked a radical break in policy from her predecessor Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who had downplayed the seriousness of the epidemic, mistrusted anti-AIDS medicines and instead advocated garlic and beetroot as a remedy.

Hogan told an international AIDS vaccine conference that countries such as South Africa — where life expectancy has fallen to 52 years — desperately need scientists to come up with a weapon against HIV.

“I’m told that it could take anything from 15 years to a century to get an effective vaccine and that it’s at least 25 years since the scientific community started looking for an HIV vaccine,” Hogan told 900 scientists from around the world. “I challenge you to look harder and faster.”

More than 6,500 new HIV infections occur daily worldwide. A recent high-profile trial of a potential vaccine not only failed to prevent infection, but those who got the inoculation also appeared at increased risk of infection compared with those who were given a placebo.

It is the first time the AIDS vaccine conference has been held in Africa, which is at the epicenter of the epidemic.

Highest number of infected in world
South Africa has an estimated 5.5 million people infected with AIDS — the highest total in the world. About 550,000 people are receiving AIDS medicines.

People with HIV can live for years if they receive the necessary medicines.

The number of people on AIDS medication has jumped by 10 times in the last six years, with some 300,000 taking AIDS drugs in 2003, compared to about 3 million in 2007.

AIDS drugs have become much cheaper and more available because of a variety of government and private programs.

Hogan said that more than half of all South African public hospital admissions are AIDS-related and more than one-quarter of the national health budget goes to fighting the disease. South Africa.

Hogan became health minister two weeks ago. Her speech Monday made it clear that she will mark a complete break from the policies of her discredited predecessor.

“We know that HIV causes AIDS,” Hogan told delegates. Her declaration marked the official end to a decade of denial embodied by former President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister about the link between HIV and AIDS.

Her opening speech to the conference was received rapturously by the scientists who enjoyed a frosty relationship with Tshabalala-Msimang.

Malegapuru Makgoba, vice chancellor and principal of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that for the first time in years, South African academics are free to “state that HIV causes AIDS without getting threats.”

“It is a liberating experience,” Makgoba said at the conference, winning applause. “You don’t know how long we suffered in bondage.”

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