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S. Africa to distribute AIDS drugs

Mbeki has been criticized for not moving quickly enough on AIDS.
Mbeki has been criticized for not moving quickly enough on AIDS.

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- South Africa's cabinet has ordered the Department of Health to "develop a detailed operational plan" to make anti-AIDS drugs available to those South Africans infected with HIV who could benefit from them.

The decision was announced after the cabinet met in special session to consider a government task force report on HIV treatment options, the government Web site said. Ministers predicted the plan will be completed by the end of September.

"Government shares the impatience of many South Africans on the need to strengthen the nation's armory in the fight against AIDS," it said.

"Cabinet will therefore ensure that the remaining challenges are addressed with urgency; and that the final product guarantees a program that is effective and sustainable."

South Africa has one of the world's highest infection rates, with about 4.7 million of the nation's 45 million people infected, more than 10 percent.

It also noted that not all of those infected would need treatment with antiretroviral agents.

Instead, the report said about about 400,000 to 500,000 South Africans need such treatment, said Zackie Achmat, chairman of the Treatment Action Campaign, an activist group, in Cape Town.

"The report itself said it [antiretroviral treatment] is both affordable and feasible and reaffirmed that HIV is the cause of AIDS and clearly stated that HIV can be treated and recommended that the government follow the guidelines of the World Health Organization for the treatment of HIV infection," he said.

Currently, fewer than 30,000 South Africans take the drugs, whose cost -- $1,000 to $1,200 per year -- makes them inaccessible to most, he said.

If the recommendations in the report are carried out, between 730,000 and 1.7 million lives will be saved over the next five to eight years, he said.

"We welcome this decision," Achmat said. "We commend this courageous decision by everyone in cabinet. Moreover, we are ready to work with the government to make this plan a reality and we welcome and thank everyone across the world -- North America, Europe and Africa -- who assisted in convincing our government to take this decision."

Achmat predicted the cost of the drugs, to be shouldered largely by the South African government, will be about $10 million this year and up to $1 billion per year once the program is ramped up.

The decision was announced following an AIDS conference in Durban, "where the clear message was sent to the government to act or face mass protest," Achmat said.

Though President Thabo Mbeki has in the past questioned whether HIV is the cause of AIDS, the report meeting participants stated explicitly that antiretroviral drugs help improve the quality of life of some AIDS patients.

The department will be assisted in its work by specialists from the Clinton Foundation AIDS Initiative, the Web site said.

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