South Africa's embattled Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was accused by AIDS activists on Wednesday of fuelling the country's HIV crisis by obstructing efforts to combat the disease.
A raft of non-governmental organisations, including the leading AIDS lobby, said the recent sacking of the deputy health minister had raised fears that a widely-praised AIDS programme was being undermined only months after its launch and that "denialism" was back in vogue.
"We hoped that government would put the lives of our people before misplaced loyalty," read a letter addressed to Deputy President Phuzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and signed by groups including the Treatment Action Campaign lobby, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Council of Churches.
"Instead, our people continue to die and become infected because of lack of leadership and deliberate obstruction from Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and her director general Thami Mseleku."
South Africa's new five-year AIDS plan -- aiming to halve new infections and treat 80 percent of sufferers -- was lauded at home and abroad when it was finally unveiled earlier this year.
It was drawn up under the leadership of Mlambo-Ngcuka, chairwoman of the National AIDS Council, and the now sacked deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge while Tshabalala-Msimang was recuperating from an illness and subsequent liver transplant.
The plaudits which greeted the plan were in stark contrast to the ridicule heaped on Tshabalala-Msimang over her championing of garlic and vegetables to help combat HIV which affects some 5.5 million South Africans.
However since her return to work, the goodwill seems to have evaporated and Madlala-Routledge's sacking on August 8 has fuelled anger towards Tshabalala-Msimang.
"We fear that denialism about the scale and needs of the AIDS crisis as well as the crisis in the public health system more broadly is once again ascendant in the health ministry," read the letter.
Tshabalala-Msimang has also faced calls to resign from the opposition this month after newspaper allegations she had a drink problem and was convicted of theft while working as a hospital administrator in Botswana three decades ago.
However she continues to enjoy the backing of President Thabo Mbeki who has himself questioned the link between HIV and AIDS in the past.