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S. African Government Approves AIDS Treatment Plan - 2003-11-19

The South African government has approved a long-awaited national treatment plan for HIV and AIDS. The program will eventually distribute free AIDS medicine to anyone who needs it.

The South African cabinet has approved a groundbreaking plan to make AIDS drugs known as anti-retrovirals available for free through the public health system.

The drugs can allow people with AIDS to live longer more productive lives. The treatment plan has been in the works for more than a year and the government says it will spend more than $45 million on the program during the next five years.

After the cabinet meeting, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told reporters in Cape Town that within a year, the government aims to have at least one treatment center open in every rural district and metropolitan area in the country. After that, she said they plan to reach every South African who needs AIDS treatment within five years.

"These service points will give citizens access to a continuum of care and treatment, integrated with the prevention and awareness campaign which remains a cornerstone of the strategy to defeat HIV and AIDS," he said.

The South African government has long been criticized for refusing to distribute anti-retrovirals through the public health system. Early on, the health minister and President Thabo Mbeki complained that the drugs were too expensive, and charged that they might be toxic. The president also expressed doubt about whether HIV causes AIDS.

But the government changed its policy under pressure from the South African public, the international community, and a couple of vocal activist groups.

Leading the battle was the Treatment Action Campaign, known as the TAC. Its national executive secretary, Rukia Cornelius, could barely contain her excitement after the announcement was made.

"The TAC is extremely excited! We are happy," said Rukia Cornelius. "It has been a long, long battle for us, almost five years. On the 10th of December it will be five years. Litigation, campaigning, protesting, consultations to get this operational plan off the ground, just out. So we're really excited, we're really happy about it."

Ms. Cornelius indicated that the Treatment Action Campaign will keep the pressure on the government to make sure the program is implemented on time and then scaled up as promised. But she also said the group is willing and eager to work with the government to help educate South African health care workers about prescribing anti-retroviral drugs and monitoring patients who choose to take them.

The TAC expertise is likely to come in handy. The health minister warned that there is still a lot of work to do before the roll-out of the treatment program is complete, and education is a key part of the process.