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Zimbabwe About to Run Out of AIDS Drugs

Zimbabwe is running out of anti-retroviral drugs to treat about 20,000 people suffering from HIV/AIDS and there is no foreign currency left to import additional supplies. Zimbabwe's economic crisis is deepening and the health sector is among those hardest hit by the meltdown.

National Pharmaceutical Company head Charles Mwaramba has told a parliamentary committee that the government-owned company does not have money to import anti-retroviral drugs to treat people infected with the HIV virus. He said this would affect 20,000 people in the government program.

An additional 6,000-8,000 people buy anti-retroviral drugs privately, but even they are struggling to find them, according to several pharmacies in Harare.

This dire situation contrasts with the government's target of supplying free anti-retroviral drugs to 100,000 people by the end of last year.

Government statistics show that out of 1.6 million Zimbabweans infected with the HIV virus, about 380,000 would fully qualify for anti-retroviral drugs.

The United Nations says Zimbabwe's HIV infection rate has dropped slightly to about 20 percent of the adult population, the only country in sub Saharan Africa to have recorded a sustained decrease in the past two years.

Zimbabwe's economic crisis is so severe that the health ministry cannot afford to import raw materials to manufacture drugs. Some 90 percent of all drugs used in government-run health institutions are paid for by the European Union.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and other western donors indicated they believe they may have secured some emergency foreign currency to ease the immediate crisis. Zimbabwe has received assistance from the Global Fund on AIDS and has qualified for the next round in 2007.

Many of Zimbabwe's government hospitals barely function, and the public health sector is in crisis with a 30-fold increase in medical fees last week to keep up with inflation that is running at more than 900 percent. With unemployment at about 80 percent, it is expected fewer and fewer people will be able to afford basic medical care.

President Robert Mugabe routinely blames western countries for the economic crisis, but economists blame the government's mismanagement.

The European Union and the United States have denied Mr. Mugabe and his colleagues travel visas because of Zimbabwe's poor human rights record, but there are no trade sanctions against the country.