Aids drug gives hope to Africa

AN AFFORDABLE answer to the Aids epidemic ravaging Africa was tantalisingly floated at the 11th African Conference on Aids last week in Lusaka.

Nevirapine, one of a new generation of anti-Aids drugs, has been found to reduce significantly the risk of transmission of HIV from mother to child, according to Ugandan medical researchers. Crucially, at $4 (pounds 2.50) a course, Nevirapine costs a fraction of AZT (pounds 95 a course), which has successfully cut down mother to child transmission in the West, but has remained out of the financial reach of poverty-stricken Africa. While the HIV virus is considered under control in the West, it is devastating the African continent, where Aids has already claimed 11.5 million lives, and infected 34 million people .

"Nevirapine gives us hope," said Chewe Luo, a Zambian paediatrician, who told the conference there was now a need for large-scale testing of the drug. "The high costs of Aids drugs has always been the major obstacle to reducing mother-to-child transmission rates." She said the Ugandan study showed that 50 per cent of the women who received Nevirapine did not pass on the virus to their babies.

The hopes invested in Nevirapine show the sheer desperation in Africa to find an affordable solution to the epidemic, which has brought a long line of "miracle" medical answers and quack cures. Some African traditional healers have made a fortune preying on Aids patients.

In South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki's government is attempting to import cheap substitutes for AZT and other anti-Aids drugs, in the face of vehement opposition from multinational pharmaceutical companies, Virodene has been the most notorious "miracle" to emerge. Though based on a toxic industrial solvent, and rejected by the medical establishment, Virodene was championed by Mr Mbeki before he became president, amid allegations that support for the drug was influenced by the offer of shares in Virodene to the ANC.