The United Nations Monday officially launched an international campaign to provide anti-retroviral drugs to three million people with AIDS by 2005. The World Health Organization says it has added three new generic products to its list of first-line treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Each of the products consists of a single pill that combines three anti-retroviral treatments in one tablet that is usually taken twice a day.
U.N. officials say the so-called three-in-one pill is relatively inexpensive and easy to administer. They say that by putting it on its list of medicines, the WHO will encourage governments to make use of the simplified treatment.
The goal of the health organization and U.N. AIDS campaign is to get anti-retroviral drug treatment for at least half of the world's estimated six million people who need it.
According to U.N. statistics, only 400,000 people world-wide are receiving the life-saving treatment, mostly because the drugs, which cost from $140 - $400 per patient per year are unaffordable to the world's poor.
The advisor to the director general of WHO, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, says the success of the U.N.'s strategy hinges on the political will and actions of individual governments.
"[The] WHO recommendation is to allow universal access to all, regardless of ability to pay," he said. "It's easy for us to say this. The countries within the context of their own budgets, their own health systems, have to work out how best to do that."
The WHO's assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, Dr. Jack Chow, says the U.N. strategy is to get the governments moving.
"What we're focusing on at WHO is bolstering national health ministries to be able to convert inputs, whether it is financial, technical, or medical, into an effective program of action," said Dr. Chow.
The U.N. estimates it will need at least $5.5 billion over the next two years to implement its program.
Kenyan Health Minister Charity Ngilu says the Kenyan government has put aside enough money this year to supply about 11,000 mostly women and low-income patients.
"We certainly are going to scale this up," said Ms. Ngilu. "We do expect that we can get 140,000 people out of the 280,000 people who are eligible for ARVs by the year 2005."
Ms. Ngilu says the government will encourage as many people as possible to pay for the medicines themselves.
"I keep on saying that the cost of ARVs now is just about the cost of cigarettes, for those people who smoke, in a month," she said.
Ms. Ngilu says, the more people pay for ARVs, the more money will be available to people who cannot afford the cost of ARVs.
The U.N. says an estimated 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. The actual number may be higher.