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Cameroon to Distribute AIDS Medication for Free

Starting Tuesday, Cameroon will offer free anti-retroviral drug treatment to all eligible HIV-positive people in the country. The program, funded by the government and various external groups, aims to reach as many as 50,000 people. Naomi Schwarz has more on the story from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Cameroon's HIV and AIDS-infected patients received good news last week. Government officials announced that starting May 1, the anti-retroviral drugs necessary to keep the virus in check would be offered to eligible patients free of charge.

Isaac Tita, the coordinator of a regional network of infected persons, says he was not expecting the announcement.

"All I was expecting the minister to say was actually to tell us if they are going to extend those treatment centers, meeting people where they are. So they can actually get their treatment where they are located," he said.

Tita says he worries that the program, which will cost upward of $11 million, might be promising too much.

"I think that they are [starting] something that is so ambitious, which is very, very ambitious, and people are going to be expecting very highly and then you will not meet up with them," he added.

A member of a Cameroonian non-governmental organization that focuses on ethics and AIDS, Calice Talom, says he thinks the program is a good first step, but will not help all the people who need it the most.

Talom says if we are going to give free drugs to people, it is equally important that follow-up exams do not cost anything, because many cannot afford to pay for them.

The United Nations says there are more than 500,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in Cameroon, including more than 40,000 children. The program aims to reach as many as 50,000 of those people.

This program is the newest step in the government's attempt to make AIDS treatment available to everyone.

In 2001, AIDS drugs cost a patient more than $1,200 a month in Cameroon. That cost had been reduced already to about $14 per month.

The Ministry of Health in Cameroon is also working to make medical treatment for other diseases more affordable.

Talom says the Ministry of Health has also recently announced a new program to make malaria treatment affordable in the country. He says, under the new program, full malaria treatment will cost only about $1.40.