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S. African health minister: HIV rates declining

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[June 06, 2008]  CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- South Africa's health minister said Thursday that HIV infection rates among pregnant women declined for the second straight year and claimed it was proof of the success of government policies.

Auto RepairSouth Africa has an estimated 5.4 million people infected with the virus, the highest total in the world.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said that a new survey showed that 28 percent of women screened at prenatal clinics last year had the virus that causes AIDS, down from 29.2 percent in 2006.

She said that overall, 37.9 percent of women aged 25-29 were infected with HIV, down from 38.7 percent in 2006. Full results of the annual survey will be released in the coming weeks, she told parliament.

After prolonged delays in providing lifesaving drugs to AIDS patients, South Africa, where 900 people die each day of the disease, has made big strides in the past year in rolling out treatment. At the end of February, more than 450,000 people had started therapy, the health minister said. This is about half the number estimated to be in need of drugs.


"Taken together, these figures do indeed suggest that we have a trend of decreasing prevalence overall," the minister said. She attributed this to "intensive prevention campaigns which are beginning to make a difference."

Some experts suggest, however, that the decline is due more to a natural leveling off of the epidemic as infected people die.

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Sandy Kalyan, the health spokeswoman for the opposition Democratic Alliance, was scathing on the record of the minister, whose AIDS policies have made her the country's most controversial politician.

"Your persistent denialism that the pandemic is escalating, and your constant flirtation with AIDS dissidents is a disgrace to your ministry," Kalyan said.

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Tshabalala-Msimang has long been accused of frustrating the anti-AIDS drive at the behest of President Thabo Mbeki, who has disputed the link between HIV and AIDS.

She has often voiced her mistrust of antiretroviral therapy, and espoused the benefits of garlic, beetroot and lemons.

"All you have managed to incur is the wrath of the people, and of course many honorary titles like Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Beetroot, Dr. No and Dr. Death," Kaylan said.

But Tshabalala-Msimang said that the ministry was boosting funding for HIV/AIDS this year by $45 million to $335 million.

Pointing to the number of South Africans on antiretroviral therapy, the minister said South Africa's program was "the largest in the world" and "contradicts those voices that suggest that this government is not concerned about treatment."

She said it was especially encouraging to note that infections among teens were down from 13.7 percent in 2006 to 12.9 percent last year.

[Associated Press; By CLARE NULLIS]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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