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South Africa to expand AIDS treatment: Zuma

PRETORIA (Reuters) - South Africa, which has the world’s highest HIV caseload, will roll out life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs to significantly more people infected with the virus from next year, President Jacob Zuma said on Tuesday. Zuma announced a new era in the approach to AIDS in South Africa, where at least 5.7 million people are infected with HIV and predecessor Thabo Mbeki was accused of failing to address a sickness that kills an estimated 1,000 people a day.

“Let there be no more shame, no more blame, no more discrimination and no more stigma. Let the politicization and endless debates about HIV and AIDS stop,” Zuma said in a speech on World AIDS Day.

From April 2010, all children under one year will get anti-retroviral drugs if they test positive. Pregnant women and patients with both tuberculosis and AIDS will receive treatment if their CD4 or T-cell counts are 350 or less.

Currently, public hospitals dispense ARVs when HIV deteriorates to AIDS and patients’ CD4 counts are below 200. It was unclear exactly how many more people would now be covered, or how the government would meet the cost.

Former President Mbeki drew sharp criticism for questioning accepted AIDS science and failing to make life-prolonging ARVs widely available. Mbeki’s health minister was lampooned for recommending garlic and beetroot as treatments.

But Zuma, an old rival of Mbeki who was elected this year, encouraged all South Africans to undergo HIV testing and likened the battle against AIDS to the struggle against apartheid.

ZUMA TO TAKE TEST

“Together we fought and defeated a system so corrupt and reviled that it was described as a crime against humanity. Together we can overcome this challenge,” he said.

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“I am making arrangements for my own test. I have taken HIV tests before, and I know my status. I will do another test soon as part of this new campaign. I urge you to start planning for your own tests.”

Zuma’s AIDS approach has been welcomed by activists.

That marks a change from their condemnation in 2006 when he admitted at a trial for rape -- of which he was acquitted -- that he had unprotected sex with a woman who was HIV positive and then showered to cut the risk of infection.

AIDS advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign applauded the change in policy but said it needed to backed by resources.

“We don’t want to be a position where we have good policies as a country but not enough resources for implementation,” TAC spokesman Phillip Mokoena said.

South Africa’s health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said in September it would not meet its target of providing life-prolonging drugs to 80 percent of HIV/AIDS sufferers by 2011 due to logistical problems and a lack of personnel.

He said the government’s HIV program had a shortfall of around 1 billion rand ($135.8 million).

Zuma did not give details of how the government would fund the increased rollout of drugs but said all health institutions in the country would be ready to receive and assist patients with treatment and testing facilities.

Currently only accredited centers can provide treatment, leading to delays in dispensing anti-retrovirals.

AIDS experts said the government’s decision to extend treatment will put the health system under further strain.

“It is going to put a lot of stress on the health system that is already creaking,” said Andy Gray, consultant pharmacist to the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa.

He said the government would have to seek external funding in order to meet its commitments.

“South Africa has such serious numbers that it is going to put pressure on donors but if the world is serious then they will support more programs,” Gray said.

The United States said on Tuesday it would provide an additional $120 million funding over two years for ARV drugs in response to a request from Zuma.

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