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AIDS Treatment Clinic Opens in Lesotho - 2004-06-21


Lesotho is too poor to tackle the AIDS crisis on its own, but, with the help from private donors and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, it is finally beginning to offer treatment and hope for some patients.

On the day Lesotho's first public anti-retroviral treatment center opened last month, the first patient arrived at 5:00 a.m. The director of the Senkatana center, which was set up in a partnership between the government and the drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb, had worried that people would be afraid to come to a place called an AIDS treatment center.

But on that first day, 27 patients showed up. Some were so sick they were brought in wheelbarrows by family members. And, Dr. Pearl Vtsekhe says, the number of patients is growing every day.

"In the first month of May we had only seen 200 people," she said. "Just now, it is mid-June, the number is 400. So, at this rate, one assumes that even 2,000 people we would have seen by the end of the year."

Nestled in the Maloti mountain range, Lesotho is one of the world's poorest countries. The United Nations estimates 330,000 people, out of the total population of a little over two million, are HIV positive.

But with help from international donors, Lesotho's government is finally beginning to take action to halt the spread of the virus and treat those already infected.

In October, three more anti-retroviral treatment programs will open at government hospitals with help from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The country hopes to begin providing 28,000 people with anti-retroviral treatment by the end of next year.

Lesotho's government is also working to reduce the transmission of the virus by encouraging testing and stopping the transmission of the virus from mothers to their children.

In March, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili launched a nationwide campaign to encourage testing by publicly getting tested. And Lesotho's government is completing the rollout of a program that can drastically reduce the transmission of HIV through pregnancy.

Pregnant women in eight of the country's 13 districts can now receive a single-dose anti-retroviral drug before labor, and the government says the program will be expanded to the remaining five districts by the end of the year.

U.N. official Stephen Lewis this week commended Lesotho on its progress, but said the country needs more help from the international community.

"I know from what I have observed, Lesotho even now could treat thousands of people with the infrastructure and capacity you have," said Mr. Lewis. "What are needed are the additional resources. There is no reason in the world why we should not be able to reach the World Health Organization target of 28,000 by the end of next year if we can go out and find the financial resources and reinforce the capacity and infrastructure of Lesotho."

Even at the Senkatana center, the program is small, and Dr. Vtsekhe worries it may run out of money in 2006 when the grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb runs out.

But for now, Senkatana, is a beacon of hope to people living with AIDS. One patient, who asked that her name not be used, said news that anti-retroviral treatment was available encouraged her to get tested.

"I heard about this clinic, so I said to myself since I am not sure about my status, let me go and check," she said. "Because, you know, HIV before was taken to be something that could, you know, kill a person at any time. I was no longer as afraid as I used to be before when I heard about the ARV, anti-retrovirals. The only thing I am afraid of is the side effects."

So far, only a small fraction of the people who need anti-retroviral drug treatment are getting it, but to those who are living with HIV in Lesotho, it is a vital start.

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