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S. African Doctors Urge Wider Access to Anti-AIDS Drug - 2003-05-05

South African healthcare workers are staging a peaceful nationwide protest in support of a campaign to make anti-AIDS drugs available to all South Africans through public hospitals and clinics.

Several-hundred members of the South African Medical Association went to work at the country's biggest hospitals wearing bright blue-and-white T-shirts declaring their support for people who are HIV-positive. Association chairman Kgosi Letlape said the doctors want affordable treatment for their AIDS patients.

"We hope this type of protest will accomplish heightening awareness among society about the serious, serious problem that we face as a society, pricking people's conscience, so that every South African walking out there will say: 'There is a crisis in the country. What am I doing to play a role in fighting the scourge of HIV and AIDS?'" said Dr. Letlape.

Dr. Letlape says SAMA wants the government to distribute anti-retro-viral drugs at state-owned hospitals and clinics, so all HIV-positive South Africans can get them. The expensive medicines can greatly prolong the lives of AIDS patients, and can allow many HIV-infected people to live basically normal lives.

Right now, anti-retrovirals are available only in private hospitals and in a few, selected public hospitals. Activist groups, especially one known as the Treatment Action Campaign, have been trying to change that.

Dr. Letlape says the medical association supports the TAC struggle and wants ordinary South Africans to join in the fight for AIDS treatment.

"What we hope to achieve is, by medical doctors adding their voice to the voice of the TAC, people should begin to see that this should not just be a fight of a few individuals," he said. "It should be a fight of society. … Because the policy we have is devoid of any humanity. It is a fight that every South African must take up. It is not about the TAC and the government, or the medical association and the government."

The Treatment Action Campaign has long fought to change the government's policy about distributing anti-retroviral drugs, even going so far as to take the health minister to court.

The group recently suspended its controversial civil disobedience campaign, to pave the way for talks with the government toward a possible policy change. But another group, the National Association of People With AIDS, is continuing to picket outside the offices of drug companies to demand that they drop the prices of their AIDS drugs.

Roughly one-fifth of all South Africans are HIV-positive. Dr. Letlape says that, in one way or another, the disease has affected almost everyone. He says the battle for treatment should be everyone's battle.

"The bottom line is that what the people in the TAC are doing is wonderful," said Dr. Letlape. But our passiveness is shameful, for the rest of the South Africans. And I am saying to all South Africans, me and you, let us wake up to the realities of the world we live in, and let us play our role as human beings."

Dr. Letlape says many doctors face the impact of AIDS every day in their work. He says the lack of treatment in the public sector is ethically unacceptable to doctors, who have sworn to protect their patients' interests.

He hopes the T-shirts will get people talking about AIDS treatment, even if they disagree with the Treatment Action Campaign stance.

The symbolic protest is scheduled to last for two days, but Dr. Letlape says SAMA plans to do it again soon, after the association distributes even more T-shirts to its more than 15,000 members.

SAMA is South Africa largest medical association and represents about two-thirds of the country's medical doctors.