Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

South Africa approves free anti-AIDS medicine


Under pressure to help the millions of people with AIDS in South Africa, the government approved a plan to distribute free anti-retroviral medicine within five years to everyone who needs it.

The health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, announced the new initiative on Wednesday after the weekly Cabinet meeting.

She added that the starting date for the program had yet to be established.

The government still needs to take bids on the contract to supply the medicine, train health care workers, and identify and upgrade distribution centers, particularly in rural areas, the minister said.

"There is still a long way to go," she told a news conference. "I don't want to raise false hopes, but a decision has been made. There is hope."

The government previously refused to provide AIDS medicine through the health system, saying it would be too expensive and questioning the effectiveness of the drugs. That prompted allegations that South Africa was failing to aggressively fight the disease that is ravaging the country.

About 4.7 million South Africans, roughly 11 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. An estimated 600 to 1,000 South Africans die every day from AIDS-related complications.

Under pressure to act, the government ordered the health ministry to draft a national plan for the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs by the end of September.

The plan, drafted with the assistance of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Foundation, was submitted to Cabinet last week.

Former US president Bill Clinton said the program could help drive down the price of AIDS drugs and become a model for other nations.

"I applaud President [Thabo] Mbeki and his government for their leadership and commitment to stopping the scourge of AIDS in South Africa," he said in a statement on Wednesday.

The South African government aims to treat 50,000 patients within the first year of the program.

Provincial governments will be charged with administering the program, ensuring at least one treatment center in every local health district within a year and in every municipality in the next five.

The plan is expected to cost US$45.4 million in the first year and grow to nearly US$689.5 million in the future, Tshabalala-Msimang said.

AIDS activists from the local Treatment Action Campaign said they had been waiting for this day for five years.

"This means that so many people that haven't had access to AIDS drugs, that are dying every day, can finally get treatment," said Rukia Cornelius, the group's national executive secretary.

She cautioned, however, that the plan needed to be implemented "as soon as possible, or more lives would be lost."

"Once identified as HIV-positive, patients will be assessed for the stage of their illness and referred into appropriate medical care," Tshabalala-Msimang said.

Treatment would focus on slowing the progression of the disease to full-blown AIDS, and maintaining good health through prompt diagnosis and treatment of opportunistic infections, she said.

The UNAIDS co-ordinator for South Africa, Mbulawa Mugabe, said the delay in approving a plan had given the government time to ensure it was sustainable.

"This will feed into the global program where the United Nations is trying to put 3 million people in treatment by 2005," he said.

"It is a huge breakthrough for the country," he said.

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