Thailand is offering life-saving HIV drugs to more than 90 percent of those in need, bucking global trends and setting an example for other developing states, the World Bank said on Wednesday.
Thai programs show that even countries with few resources may be able to hand out crucial antiretroviral therapy (ART) on a vast scale, at low cost, a World Bank report, released at the 16th International AIDS Conference, said.
"Thailand's ART program is a useful beacon for other developing countries which are looking at how to provide this treatment to people with advanced HIV," bank economist Ana Revenga said.
Around 6.8 million of the estimated 38.6 million people living with HIV worldwide need antiretroviral therapy, the WHO said on Wednesday. Only 1.66 million, or 24 percent of those in need, are getting the treatment, the UN agency said.
But Thailand has bucked the trend. By May this year, it was providing treatment for 78,000 AIDS patients -- more than 90 percent of those who need it, according to the report, co-authored with the Thai Ministry of Public Health.
Its effort to help HIV sufferers has been boosted by the domestic manufacture of an affordable antiretroviral therapy which costs only US$30 per month, the report said.
"We conclude Thailand can afford universal treatment, and is rightly in the vanguard of developing countries seeking to provide antiretroviral therapy as the standard of care to large numbers of people with symptomatic HIV disease," Revenga said.
The fact that Thailand is in a position to mount such an effort is thanks to its HIV prevention program adopted in the early 1990s as the full horror of the disease became clear, the World Bank said.
"We estimate, if they had not undertaken that program, they would have about 14 times as many cases and about 14 times as much expense," Mead Over, a bank economist and co-author of the report said.
Over said Thailand may have saved US$43 in treatment costs for every dollar it spent on prevention.
According to World Bank figures, Thailand would now be struggling against a horrific HIV problem, had it not acted so quickly. The Thai government would have faced 7.7 million HIV cases and 850,000 AIDS sufferers last year, the bank said.
China, India and other countries should closely study the Thai experience when framing anti-HIV strategy, Over said.
Thailand has long been regarded as one of the most successful nations in fighting HIV. Its health ministry said in January that 1,478 people died from AIDS between January and November last year, compared to 6,593 for the same period in 2004.
The sharp drop in deaths was attributed to the increasing availability of antiretroviral drugs.
The World Bank said that more than 1 million Thais have been infected with HIV since the first case was reported in the country in 1984.
Despite its successes, Thailand still faces a high incidence of HIV among high-risk groups, especially those that were not targeted in the past, including male prostitutes and drug addicts.
But the recent availability of antiretroviral drugs has offered rays of hope for sufferers and non-governmental organizations in the country, said David Wilson, medical coordinator with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Thailand.
"I've seen the attitude of many of them change from hopelessness to optimism," he said. "They want to share their positive experience of treatment with their friends and so help others to access the medicines which have given them such new life."