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Voice of America
Quarter Million South Africans Getting Free AIDS Drugs </b>
Catherine MadduxWashington</i></font>
November 9, 2006

The South African health ministry says more than 235,000 HIV infected people are now receiving free AIDS medication, up about 60,000 from the end of June.

The South African government says the increase is quite significant.

Sibani Mngadi, a spokesman for South Africa's Health Ministry, says in June, about 178,000 HIV-infected South Africans were getting free anti-retroviral therapy. When the ministry reviewed its figures in September, officials saw a surprising jump in the numbers.

"We have never heard of any other country that has achieved almost an average of 20,000 people being put on treatment a month," he noted.

A ministry statement says by the end of September a total of 235,378 people were receiving life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs at 273 licensed hospitals and clinics across the country.

But some question the government's figures. Longtime government critic Mark Heywood of the AIDS Law Project and the Treatment Action Campaign says while activists welcome every increase in the number of people on AIDS drugs, it is unclear how the government arrived at the new figures.

"We still lack a proper system for monitoring the numbers of people on treatment and also for evaluating the benefits for people on treatment," he said. "And the second issue is that even if this is accurate, the increase is still nothing like the total numbers of people who would benefit from being on anti-retroviral treatment, which is estimated to be something like an additional 500,000 people who need treatment."

After years of criticism, the government has recently shifted its policy for treating the estimated 5.4 million people infected with HIV, out of South African's population of 47 million, about 11 percent of the population. That is believed to be the second-highest rate of infection after India.

For years, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, dubbed "Dr. Beetroot" by critics, has been widely condemned by activists for her promotion of a diet rich in beets, garlic and lemons to combat the deadly disease and for publicly expressing mistrust of anti-retrovirals.

After stinging rebukes at the International AIDS Conference in August, South African President Thabo Mbeki appointed his deputy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of a ministerial team on HIV and AIDS. She quickly began holding meetings with activists, notably the Treatment Action Campaign, to help reset national policy.

In addition, South Africa is set to announce a new five year prevention, treatment and care strategy on World AIDS Day, December 1. It is expected to set firm targets for the number of people receiving free anti-retroviral therapy.

But Mark Heywood of the Treatment Action Campaign says what is happening now in the lead up to the announcement is what really matters.

"You know, no targets have been fixed yet. We are meeting with the government. We are busy writing proposals to arrive at realistic programs and targets. And what is said on World Aids Day we will judge on World AIDS Day itself as to whether this is serious or not," said Heywood.

Despite the suspicions of activists, health ministry spokesman Sibani Mngadi says he is confident the number of people who need AIDS drugs in South Africa will continue to rise.



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