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Rwanda Looks to Education, Generic Medicines to Combat HIV/AIDS

An estimated 190,000 people in Rwanda, about three percent of the population, are infected with HIV and AIDS. But there is optimism at the highest levels of government that education can stem the spread of disease. Noel King reports from Kigali that officials also hope generic anti-retroviral drugs from Canada may drastically improve the lives of many affected by HIV/AIDS.

Rwandan officials announced their intent to import generically made HIV/AIDS medications manufactured in Canada, last July.

Medical authorities in Rwanda have not yet approved the drugs for public consumption; but they acknowledge that cheaply made drugs could have a tremendous effect on this developing nation.

Executive Secretary of Rwanda 's National AIDS Control Commission, Agnes Binagwaho, spoke to VOA in Kigali. She said generic drugs could benefit impoverished people living with the disease.

"For changing the life of people living with HIV/AIDS, there will be no doubt," she said. "If those are good drugs, cheap drugs. The cheaper it is, the more people we can put on treatment with the same amount of money. It can change the future."

Rwanda is the first country to take advantage of a World Health Organization waiver that allows poor countries to work around patent laws and import generic drugs that cannot be manufactured domestically.

Binagwaho said Rwanda has also made great strides with campaigns aimed at educating the public on condom use and urging compassion for those who are ill.

Rwandan national surveys indicate HIV/AIDS patients are rarely stigmatized, although many people prefer to live with the disease in secret.

Binagwaho notes that Rwanda has also chosen to directly address the problem of female sex workers.

"What we try to do, we try to pull them out of prostitution, give them another way to have [an] income so that those women can work, real work and do not sell their bodies to have money. And it works," she said.

U.S. aid to Rwanda to tackle HIV/AIDS increased 31 percent to almost $103 million in 2007.

Challenges still loom though, as an influx of formerly displaced Rwandans have returned home from Tanzania with high rates of disease.

It is unclear what impact the flood of refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, will have on HIV/AIDS rates in Rwanda.