ATM pharmacy to cut queues for South Africa's AIDS patients

ALEXANDRA, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa has launched an ATM-like vending machine to dispense medicines to patients with chronic illnesses such as AIDS in a move aimed at reducing waiting times and congestion in public healthcare facilities.

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The Health Ministry and charity Right to Care said the Pharmacy Dispensing Unit was the first of its kind in Africa, and allowed patients with chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS to receive repeat medication in a few minutes.

At the epicenter of the worldwide AIDS pandemic, South Africa now boasts the largest treatment program in the world, with million people receiving the antiretroviral drugs that allow those living with HIV to lead normal lives.

The unit, dubbed the “ATM pharmacy”, was launched in Johannesburg’s rundown Alexandra township. It works like a cash-vending machine but gives out medicines. Patients can speak to pharmacists located at a call center by using a telephone receiver on the unit and receive advice on their medicines.

“We chose Alex as the first location because it’s highly populated, facilities are overly burdened and people are in need of public healthcare,” Fanie Hendriksz, managing director of Right to Care pharmacy wing Right ePharmacy, said on Thursday.

Bathandwa Mbele, who is HIV positive, said the ATM pharmacy is a life changer.

“Wow, it has really changed my life because I’m no longer worried now about collecting my pills late. Closer pharmacies are really needed because clinics are too far,” unemployed Mbele, 25, said.

Domestic worker Primrose Good, 60, who suffers from diabetes, said the unit would spare her long waiting times.

“As old people who are sick, it helps with time and waiting because we get dizzy in the clinic because it’s too full,” she said as she put her medication inside her handbag.

“Just came to the machine, punched in my number, took my pills and went home.”

Writing by Nomvelo Chalumbira; Editing by James Macharia and Alison Williams