Barcelona - Anger and dismay have erupted at the International Aids Conference following Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's comment that anti-retrovirals are "poisons" killing "our people".

Several South African scientists at the Barcelona conference said they were extremely embarrassed by the health minister's remarks, which had undermined South Africa's international image.

Said one government health official, who asked not to be named: "We put so much effort in trying to boost South Africa's image, and then this happens. It is very disappointing."

Tshabalala-Msimang's remarks, later denied by her special adviser, Patricia Lambert, as untrue, were reportedly made to a journalist from Newsday following the opening of the department of health's HIV and Aids stand at the conference.

Lambert said the word "poison" was not used and that the minister was simply "asking why the US Food and Drug Administration had not registered single-dose nevirapine".

During the interview, the minister also reportedly said she was unhappy with last week's Constitutional Court ruling that ordered the government to supply the drug.

"We will implement it because we are forced to implement it," Newsday newspaper quoted her as saying.

Professor James McIntyre, head of the perinatal research unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, said: "Quite frankly, her remarks, if true, are downright ridiculous. She has already sanctioned the use of nevirapine in 250 sites in the country, so are all those people being poisoned as well? There is so much quality science going on in South Africa that we really don't need this."

McIntyre said there was a wealth of knowledge that proved the efficacy of single-dose nevirapine to prevent the transmission of the virus from an HIV-positive mother to her newborn baby.

Professor Gerry Coovadia, head of Aids research at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, said it was a pity that leaders in SA's health sector were still casting doubt on the efficacy of a drug that had proved itself to be very effective in reducing HIV transmission from mother to baby.

Said Coovadia, who is involved in several discussions at the conference: "My advice would have been for her to listen to presentations by some of the world's top scientists. There's much new evidence being presented here this week which is of vital importance to us in South Africa."

However, that isn't an option, as the minister flew back to SA before the first day of the five-day conference had barely begun.

The Spanish Minister of Health, Celia Villalobos, has also come under harsh media treatment for cutting state pensions for people with Aids. And she was booed during her opening address.