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South African Press Association
100 TAC Leaders Die in Four Months

October 9, 2003
Aids drug lobby group, the Treatment Action Campaign, lost 100 of its leaders to the disease over a four-month period, chairman Zackie Achmat said on Thursday.

Most of those who died were women younger than 24, he told Pretoria Technikon students after receiving a communicator of the year award.

They died between March 20 and July 31. Only one was taking anti-retroviral drugs.

"It is very hard organisation to work for, but the fact that we can save more lives is what keeps driving us," Achmat said.

He repeated a call on the government to reduce the price of Aids drugs to under R200 a month.

It could do this by issuing licences for the manufacturing of generic versions of drugs.

By reducing the price, the government would be in a position to provide anti-retrovirals to poor people for free, and also make the drugs more affordable in the private sector.

When the TAC started its campaign in 1998, HIV-positive people had to pay up to R4,500 a month for potentially life-saving drugs.

They could now be obtained at R300 a month, Achmat said.

"Of course we believe in intellectual property," he told the students. "We are not against profit, but we are against profiteering from life."

Achmat himself was in the fifth week of anti-retroviral treatment, after initially refusing to take drugs unless the government put in place a national treatment plan.

Anti-retrovirals were currently available in the public sector to rape survivors and for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, but not for the treatment of those already infected.

Achmat said it was painful for him to be taking the drugs when people unable to afford the treatment were still dying.

He experienced no side-effects except from initial dizziness, he told reporters.

"I am feeling almost normal for the first time in many years," he said. He had just finished reading a book of 800 pages, the first time he had been able to do so in a long time.

Achmat said he was confident there were many people in the government and the health department who were keen to put in place a national treatment plan.

He hoped the minority who questioned conventional beliefs on the causes and treatment of Aids "have learnt their lesson by now".

A task team last week presented a treatment plan report to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for submission to cabinet.

"I am confident the government will act urgently on this," Achmat said.

He again urged South Africans to use protection during sex to avoid contracting or spreading the HI-Virus.

"Six hundred people die in our country every day, which is a tragedy. But even worse is that there are 1,500 new infections every day," he said.

Achmat was presented with an award by the technikon's department of public relations and business communication for his commitment to spreading the truth.