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AIDS Fighting Drugs Needed Now, says South African Official

South Africa's senior health official said the government is preparing a program to provide anti-retroviral drug treatment for the country's AIDS patients. But another senior official has warned that such a program must start very soon.

National Health Director Ayanda Ntsaluba told the conference that it is no longer a question of whether the government will provide the drugs, but rather of when and how. Dr. Ntsaluba said he expects a decision from the cabinet soon.

But the director of Health in the Western Cape Province told the conference a national treatment program must be implemented almost immediately, or five million South Africans will die of AIDS in the next five to 10 years. The official, Dr. Fareed Abdullah, said any treatment program must include anti-retroviral drugs, which reduce the number of HIV-infected cells in the body.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. But several years ago South African President Thabo Mbeki questioned whether AIDS is actually caused by HIV. He also suggested that the anti-retroviral drugs are so toxic they are more harmful than helpful.

President Mbeki was widely criticized by doctors, researchers and AIDS patients and he has now publicly stepped away from those views. But the chairman of the conference, Professor Hoosen Coovadia, said the president's opposition significantly delayed the fight against AIDS in South Africa. The country has the world's largest number of people with HIV or AIDS, nearly five million.

Still, Professor Coovadia says the government and the private health care community have made much progress in fighting AIDS in the past three years, particularly through prevention programs.

This is not a view shared by AIDS activists. Zakkie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign says the government's failure to provide treatment for AIDS patients is a crime against humanity. Mr. Achmat, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, said the government has repeatedly broken its promises to provide treatment for AIDS patients.

The conference has brought together the health community, scientists, activists and government officials to chart the future battle against AIDS in South Africa.