In South Africa, the political fall of Prime Minister Thabo Mbeki three weeks ago is giving rise to a new chapter in the country's fight against AIDS. South Africa has the highest number of HIV-infected people in the world, estimated at more than 5.5 million. For years, the Mbeki handling of the epidemic drew worldwide criticism. Now, Mbeki's successor as President has appointed a new health minister, and she's already charting a new course.
Barbara Hogan's first speech as the new Health Minister was not impassioned, or very original. But, for AIDS activists in South Africa, her message was sweet.
"We know that HIV caused AIDS. It was imperitive to get ahead of the curve of this epidemic ten years ago. We all, for various reasons, have lost ground."
Hogan's words brought jubilation to the International AIDS Vaccine Conference, held in Capetown. The new minister gave the opening address. Her words marked a radical departure for South Africa's government.
For almost a decade, South Africa's leaders downplayed the rise of the epidemic here. In fact, both former President Thabo Mbeki and his controversial health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang denied that the virus HIV causes AIDS. Doctors say that this denialism increased the spread of the disease. It now kills close to 1,000 people each day in South Africa