News / Africa

South Africa Rolls Out New HIV Treatment

Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs sit on a shelf in the pharmacy at the Ubuntu clinic in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township, Feb. 15, 2010. Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs sit on a shelf in the pharmacy at the Ubuntu clinic in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township, Feb. 15, 2010.
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Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs sit on a shelf in the pharmacy at the Ubuntu clinic in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township, Feb. 15, 2010.
Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs sit on a shelf in the pharmacy at the Ubuntu clinic in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township, Feb. 15, 2010.
The South African government has rolled out a new single pill to treat HIV/AIDS this week, claiming it will be the cheapest such treatment in the world. The country has the world's largest number of people living with the virus and it hopes this new pill will allow it to treat more patients.

In this small ARV (antiretroviral multiple drug therapy) center in the north of Pretoria, South Africa, a woman looks up at a poster promoting a new treatment for HIV/AIDS. The poster reads "One ARV pill a day. 3 ARV pills in 1, taken once a day." For HIV positive South Africans, this could mean a drastic change in their daily life, for the better.

The South African government started prescribing the new product on the 1st of April. Instead of taking 3 tablets a day, twice a day, HIV positive patients now only have to take 1 small pill per day.

Medical officer Dimakatso Boikhutso says the patients  who already have switched to this new treatment are satisfied.

"Patients are happy, those who have started the treatment, because its time-saving and it also improves compliance," said Boikhutso.

The new pill also is supposed to reduce side effects compared to other combined tablets, says Boikhutso.

"Initially patients were taking Stavudine which had side-effects like lipodystrophy [selective loss of body fat], peripheral neuropathy [weakening of the nerves in the body], then it was phased out. So now it's ine pill which has less side effects," said Boikhutso.

In the first three-month phase, the pill will be given mostly to new patients, pregnant women and breast-feeding women because the pill prevents mother-to-baby infection through breastfeeding.

South Africa still has the world's largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS, but the country has made tremendous progress in the treatment of the disease over the last few years. Today, 1.9 million South Africans are under ARV treatment, ten times more than in 2005.

According to Aaron Motsoaledi, the South African minister of health, the new fixed-dose combination pill should further increase that number.

"Its going to be the cheapest. We used to spend 150 rands [$16] per patient per month. With this fixed dose combination, its going to be only 89 rands [$10] per month. Which means meaning the possibility of treating more people with the same resource," said Motsoaledi.

The equivalent of $10 a month is, according to Motsoaledi, the cheapest HIV/AIDS treatment in the world, and the government plans to reach 180,000 priority patients in the first phase of the rollout.

Aside from treating its HIV positive population, the South African government also will focus its policy on prevention.

South Africa has 5.6 million people living with HIV/AIDS. That is 17 percent of the world's population of people living with HIV.

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