There have been some interesting updates in the field of HIV politics and denial recently. First, after having several months of moving forward with a real plan to combat AIDS in South Africa, the deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, has been fired. For those who follow this area, Madlala-Routledge stepped into the limelight when she took over for her boss, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, while she had surgery. Tshabalala-Msimang, you may recall, is the one who sided with President Thabo Mbeki regarding causes of AIDS (and cures for it), advocating treatments such as a recipe of garlic, beetroot, lemon and African potatoes to combat AIDS while underplaying the role of anti-retroviral drugs. Madlala-Routledge had been working to swing things the other way, and it seems this is a part of what got her fired; more after the jump.
Though the New York Times now has an article of their own up, noting:
For nearly a year, Ms Madlala-Routledge has been leading the Health Ministry’s campaign against AIDS while the health minister was sidelined by illness. AIDS workers say that Ms. Madlala-Routledge was partly responsible for ending five years or more of government indecision and occasional denial of the scope of the epidemic.
Christine Gorman, however, beat the NY Times to the punch, and further discusses what the loss of Madlala-Routledge may mean to South Africa:
The most immediate casualty, apart from the deputy minister herself, may be South Africa’s newly developed National Strategic Plan for AIDS (2007-2011), a highly regarded and forward-thinking blueprint for tackling the crushing HIV epidemic in that country. Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge played a major role in getting the plan pulled together, which was developed with input from many health experts inside and outside of government as well as civil society leaders.
Exactly why she was fired remains unclear. The “official” story seems to be that she took an unauthorized trip at taxpayer expense, but Gorman notes that this is murky:
…rumors were rife in South Africa that she had been given permission to go, which was then revoked while she was in the air. As soon as she learned about the change, she took the next available flight home, without even attending the conference.
Meanwhile, Madlala-Routledge had recently taken another trip, also said to have angered Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang:
The last straw for Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang, who has apparently made a full recovery, was when the deputy minister of health made an unannounced visit to a maternity hospital in the Eastern Cape. There, Madlala-Routledge found that the appalling conditions described by a local newspaper report were in fact true and that mothers and babies were dying needlessly.
Madlala-Routledge’s call for reform at the hospital was treated as insubordination by the Minister of Health. The ANC newsletter attacked the press reports as “dramatic but false” even as the Minister of Health began launching many of the needed changes.
Not surprisingly, groups nationally and internationally are criticizing Mbeki’s action; this will reverberate for a long time yet.