By Mariette le Roux
The consumption of garlic, beetroot and lemon delayed the development of HIV into "Aids-defining conditions", Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said on Tuesday.
Defending her alleged promotion of nutrition ahead of anti-retroviral drugs, the minister said healthy and positive living, especially proper nutrition, was essential.
"Shall I repeat garlic, shall I talk about beetroot, shall I talk about lemon... these delay the development of HIV to Aids-defining conditions, and that's the truth," the minister said in debate on her department's budget vote.
Furthermore, people could not be stopped if they wished to take traditional medicines.
Tshabalala-Msimang lashed out at Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler Barnard, who had accused her of doing nothing to stop "charlatans" punting garlic, beetroot and traditional medicines as a cure for Aids.
Kohler Barnard had urged the minister to stop her "flirtations with Aids denialists", and asked how Tshabalala-Msimang was able to sleep at night with the current limited reach of treatment programmes.
While a third of pregnant women were HIV-positive, only 15 percent received medication to prevent transmission to their babies.
"In any other country in the world, 1 000 deaths a day for just a week would have triggered calls for the declaration of a national emergency," Kohler Barnard said, adding that about 1 500 people were infected every day.
"By the time the Soccer World Cup comes to South Africa, it will be too late for five million of us who will have to watch the games from a garlic- and beetroot-induced afterlife."
Tshabalala-Msimang responded sharply, repeating a few times that she would never stop "telling the truth about HIV and Aids".
Kohler Barnard could "bubble and bubble and quote figures and figures", but this would not deter her.
The best strategy to fight the spread of HIV was prevention, "and that's the truth", said the minister.
Another truth was "proper nutrition".
And further, traditional medicine "has been used by our people long before the advent... of other forms of medicine.
"And our people still use traditional medicine even today ... and you can't stop them from using traditional medicines."
It was not true that only South Africa focused on traditional medicine, said the minister.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) was holding a meeting on the topic next week, and supported research into traditional medicine.
"These are the truths I will continue to tell the people of South Africa," said Tshabalala-Msimang.
"No churning of figures after figures will deter me and my department from telling the truth to the people of the country."
In her address at the start of the debate, the minister said the international community had "finally endorsed" South Africa's "emphasis on prevention of new infections and tackling the link with poor nutrition".
The WHO and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria have included attention to nutrition in their future plans, while the WHO's African leg declared 2006 the year of accelerated HIV and Aids prevention.
"We are honoured as South Africans to have led the way in this regard through our comprehensive plan for management, care and treatment of HIV/Aids."
The Global Fund would host a partnership meeting in South Africa next month, signalling "that they have confidence in us", the minister stated.
She was "conscious of the need" to strengthen implementation of South Africa's comprehensive Aids plan.
This included boosting public awareness, access to voluntary counselling and testing, and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the HI Virus.
The promotion of good nutrition and development of African traditional medicines were also key, as was the monitoring of anti-retroviral therapy.
An accelerated HIV prevention strategy would include a R200-million budget for communication and social mobilisation over the next two years, the minister said.
The campaign would focus on sexual abstinence and condom distribution.
"As South Africans, we must be proud of our comprehensive plan," Tshabalala-Msimang said.
Opposition political parties were critical, however.
The African Christian Democratic Party said delays in providing anti-retroviral treatment took their toll on health services and the economy.
"Now as budgets increase in seemingly futile efforts to meet the challenge, regrets over government's unwillingness to escalate efforts years ago hang in the air."
The Inkatha Freedom Party's Mabalana Sibuyana said treatment was inadequate to cope with the spreading epidemic, and highlighted "a huge problem of denial".
"This could be overcome by leadership being more outspoken and united around HIV, by better partnerships between conventional and traditional doctors and by greater deployment of community health workers." - Sapa