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Reuters New Media
Nigeria opens 41 new AIDS treatment centres

March 14, 2006
LAGOS, March 14 (Reuters) - Nigeria has opened 41 new AIDS treatment centres to give wider access to free anti-retroviral therapy for people who are HIV positive, the government's anti-AIDS agency said on Tuesday. About 3.5 million people are living with the deadly virus in Africa's most populous country of around 140 million people, the third-highest number after India and South Africa.

Nigeria started giving out free anti-retroviral drugs (AVRs) in January from 33 treatment centres to about 40,000 patients, scrapping a 1,000 naira ($8) subsidy that patients previously had to pay every month.

"We have added new treatment centres, bringing the total number to 74," Babatunde Osotimehin, chairman of the National Action Committee on AIDS (NACA), told Reuters. The centres are spread across Nigeria's 36 states and the capital Abuja.

"We plan to set up more centres over the next few months to bring treatment as close to the people as we can," he added.

Two-thirds of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day and campaigners say many HIV-positive people are too poor to pay for the life-saving drugs which cost between 3,000 to 7,000 naira per month on the open market.

Medecins Sans Frontier, which campaigns for wider access to free AIDS treatment in Nigeria, lauded the new programme, but said many patients still cannot pay for a series of monthly medical tests for AVRs to be correctly administered. Many more cannot afford treatment of opportunistic infections.

NACA plans to expand the anti-retroviral therapy to 250,000 patients by year-end, with funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the United States government and other major donors, and savings from the debt write-off granted Nigeria in 2005 by the Paris Club.

Osotimehin said the government is also studying ways to subsidise the battery of medical tests while treatment for tuberculosis, one of the most common illnesses among AIDS patients, was already free in Nigeria.

He said full HIV/AIDS care including tests was free for children and pregnant women -- a key part of efforts to prevent the transmission of the virus from mother to child.

($ = 127.5 naira)

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