A study by South African scientists 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 health minister.
The report — confirming what experts worldwide have said — was likely to increase pressure on the minister, who has been ridiculed for promoting olive oil, garlic, lemon and the African potato for people with AIDS and for questioning the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is also under fire because of the dismissal of her deputy and over newspaper allegations her liver transplant may have been needed because 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 300-page study by the Academy of Science of South Africa.
Nutrition can help
The 15-member panel said healthy eating does appear to help slow the progression of AIDS and tuberculosis. But it cautioned that there was little reliable evidence about the influence of nutrition on the diseases.
Tshabalala-Msimang’s spokesman could not be reached for comment on the report.
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 now alive would live to celebrate their 60th birthdays.
In April, the government finalized a plan to halve the number of new infections by 2011 and extend treatment and care to 80 percent of those in need. But AIDS activists voiced concern about the commitment to those targets after the dismissal 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 differences with 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 anti-retrovirals, anti-retrovirals. 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 Dr. 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.
The opposition Democratic Alliance renewed calls for Mbeki to dismiss the health 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 anti-retrovirals in treating AIDS.”