Nigeria is launching Africa's first program to provide generic drugs at a low cost to people with AIDS. The pilot program seeks to reach 10,000 patients throughout Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.
The drugs are being imported from two pharmaceutical companies in India and are being distributed through designated medical facilities in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, and the rest of the country.
A South Africa court case this year paved the way for making cheap generic drugs available to people with AIDS. But the South African government has yet to provide funding for a distribution program. Botswana has launched a program to treat AIDS patients using drugs made by pharmaceutical companies in the West. Nigeria is the first to begin dispensing imported generic drugs.
Advocates complain accessibility to the drugs remains a problem throughout the continent. This is one of the main topics being addressed at the 12th Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) in Africa, currently underway in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Penelope Cummins with the South African advocacy group known as Human Science Research Council is among the hundreds of delegates attending the gathering. "One of the issues always in rural Africa is the issue of distribution and access," she explained. "Where you have large distances with a population that simply does not itself have means of transport, getting the drugs or anything to that particular locality in a way that is regular and reliable is often very problematic. In a continent like Africa, which is predominantly a pedestrian continent, any health facility is simply not available to you if you can not get to it. And for people who live even 20 kilometers away, it is almost as if they are entirely unserved if the price of transport is beyond their means."
The program in Nigeria has come under criticism already. Doctors at medical facilities designated to distribute the drugs in Lagos last week reported they had still not received them. Though reduced, the cost of the drugs still amounts to hundreds of dollars per person. Some critics doubt whether the government will be able to sustain the program for long. Advocates say the fact the Nigerian government has shown a willingness to make generic drugs available to people with AIDS is a step in the right direction.
A UN report this month says the majority of the 40 million people living with HIV in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the infection rate in West Africa remains high, surpassing five percent in nations including Nigeria. The United Nations says at least 3.4 million people were living with HIV in Nigeria last year.
Advocates say the AIDS epidemic is putting Nigeria's future at stake and the government cannot afford to stand by without taking action. A recent report by the UN children's agency said there are one million Nigerian children who have been orphaned by the disease.