At last, South Africa provides free drugs to its poorest Aids victims

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The Independent Online

South Africa has finally begun a programme to roll out cheap Aids drugs among its poor, after years of prevaricating. With 5.3 million people infected with HIV and Aids and 600 people dying of Aids every day, South Africa has the highest number of people infected by the deadly virus in the world, the United Nations said.

South Africa has finally begun a programme to roll out cheap Aids drugs among its poor, after years of prevaricating. With 5.3 million people infected with HIV and Aids and 600 people dying of Aids every day, South Africa has the highest number of people infected by the deadly virus in the world, the United Nations said.

The richest country in Africa, had been under pressure to take the lead and use part of its wealth to help Aids sufferers. Yet distribution of free anti-retroviral drugs to poor people suffering from HIV/Aids had been long delayed while the government questioned their efficacy and safety. President Thabo Mbeki said poverty and not HIV was the real cause of Aids.

Mr Mbeki's views on Aids opened his government to accusations that it did not take the deadly disease seriously. Groups working to tackle Aids said thousands of lives could have been prolonged if the government had acted more quickly.

South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), fought several court battles with President Mbeki's government over its inaction on Aids before it approved the outline of a plan to provide anti-retroviraldrugs. The TAC had threatened to go back to court again to force the government to implement the programme more quickly. Botswana had been the only African country to guarantee anti-retroviral treatment to its citizens.

Under mounting public pressure, the South African government approved a plan last November to provide free Aids medicines within five years. The programme began yesterday in South Africa's richest province, Gauteng, where five major hospitals, including Chris Hani Baragwanath, the largest in Africa, were selected to administer the drugs.

The health department hopes to treat about 100 new cases each week, and intends to treat a total of 10,000 people at 23 sites in Gauteng, where the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, by next year. Mark Heywood, a spokesman for the TAC, welcomed the plan but said the numbers covered were too small. He said the government must do more to ensure that more clinics start treating more people. He said the TAC would drop any further court action against Mr Mbeki's government but he did not rule out resuming it if the the programme was not expanded soon.

Mr Mbeki's government has promised its programme will be the world's largest and most comprehensive national treatment. Yesterday, a 27-year-old father, the precious bottle of pills firmly clutched in his hand, was surrounded by photographers and television cameras as he listened attentively to a pharmacist at Johannesburg Hospital explaining how to take the life-prolonging anti-retrovirals.

"To me, it means a lot," the frail man told reporters. His girlfriend and two-year-old daughter have also tested positive for HIV. "I have a child to raise. I want to take her to her first day of school, and I can only do that if I am healthy." He asked not to be named because of the stigma attached to the disease.

Anti-retrovirals have remained out of the reach of thousands who badly need them, particularly in Africa. The World Health Organisation says only 8 per cent of those who need them have access to the drugs.

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