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Thailand to Offer Low Cost AIDS Drugs

Thai nurse sits with AIDS patient
Thailand says it will soon offer anti-AIDS drugs at almost no cost to anyone living with HIV or AIDS. The government is keeping a promise made at an international AIDS conference last year.

The Thai Health Ministry says providing anti-retroviral or ARV drugs through the national health service will make them available to up to half a million people.

Thailand believes it will be the first country in the world to provide all HIV/AIDS patients with the drugs, which block the action of the HIV virus and slow its attack on the immune system.

Sombat Phanprasertsuk, a director with the Thai Health Ministry, says the initiative fulfils a promise made by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra when the country played host to the 15th International AIDS Conference last year.

Dr. Sombat says the scheme builds on earlier programs. "Last year, my prime minister announced that the government will include the anti-retroviral agents for AIDS treatment for all AIDS patients, and in fact, we have been operating this ARV program for quite some time and the coverage has improved so much," he explained.

The service will commence in October, and will guarantee that every HIV and AIDS patient will have access to ARV drugs through the normal health system.

Up to one million Thais have been infected with the AIDS virus, and 500,000 have died of AIDS since it was identified in the country in 1984.

By adding AIDS drugs to national health service coverage, Thailand is expanding a program that has already given free anti-retroviral drugs to 50,000 low income patients.

Dr. Sombat said the government plans to spend $68 million in the first year of the new program.

The drug program was announced at a national seminar, where some raised concerns that Thailand's AIDS education and assistance programs were beginning to lose momentum.

Experts at the seminar warned that rapidly changing patterns of behavior, including unsafe sex, were exposing millions of Thai teenagers to health risks.

Thailand has been considered a success story in the region's fight against AIDS, with the annual rate of new HIV infections dropping to just over 21,000 from more than 140,000 in the early 1990s.

The United Nations recently put the number of people in Asia with the AIDS virus at just over eight million.