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Botswana president says he had no choice but to give his people AIDS medicine


GABORONE, Botswana - Botswana President Festus Mogae said Tuesday his country had no choice but to begin a nationwide program to give AIDS medicine to everyone who needs it.

"We are the most hideously affected country in the world and we had to do something about it," he said during a news conference with foreign journalists. "The pandemic is not abating."

An estimated 19 percent of Botswana's 1.7 million people are infected with HIV . About 38 percent of its adults have the virus, the highest infection rate in the world.

The diamond-rich southern African nation is one of the first countries on the continent to commit to a widespread program of providing AIDS medicine through its public health system.

The government began rolling out its program earlier this year.

Currently, 250 people are receiving AIDS medicine from a hospital in the capital, Gaborone, while another 800 are on a waiting list because of a shortage of doctors to examine patients and prescribe the medicine.

AIDS itself is partly to blame for that problem, its deadly spread killing many workers and exacerbating Botswana's already serious shortage of skilled labor, Mogae said.

"We are short of doctors. We are short of nurses. We are short of pharmacists. We are short of health technicians," he said.

Nonetheless, the government plans to open three more sites to provide the often costly but potentially lifesaving medicine across the country by July, giving an estimated 19,000 people the medicine by the end of the year, Health Minister Joy Phumaphi said.

"We do not believe it is fair to offer people prevention strategies without offering them treatment and care," she said.

Few other African nations provide any AIDS drugs through their public health systems and those that do have tiny programs and little money to expand them.

Botswana has more money than most African countries and is also receiving some funding for its program from the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation .

In the next 3 to 5 years the government expects to spend a total of 1.2 billion pula (nearly dlrs 200 million) on AIDS medicine as it continues expanding the number of sites and the number of people receiving the medicine, Phumaphi said.

Without AIDS drugs, Botswana's work force would continue dying off in frightening numbers, badly damaging the country, she said.

"The economy stands more to suffer from not having the program than from having it," she said.


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Information in this article was accurate in April 9, 2002. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.