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UN joins the poor in war against AIDS

Nairobi, Dec. 1 (Reuters): The UN unveiled ambitious plans today to rush life-saving antiretroviral AIDS drugs to three million of the world’s poor in a $5.5 billion strategy to fight a disease now killing 8,000 a day.

The UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates six million people in poor countries need the anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment that many victims in the developed world take for granted, but less than 300,000 actually receive it.

“HIV/AIDS has become the premier disease of mass destruction,” WHO assistant director-general Jack Chow said at the launch of a strategy on World AIDS Day aiming to get ARV treatment to half of the six million by the end of 2005.

“HIV/AIDS is intensifying its destructive fury on this continent (Africa)... It is inexorably converting developing nations into AIDS-imploding nations.”

The WHO wants governments and funding agencies to supply the $5.5 billion, equivalent to just over one percent of the more than $400 billion the world spends a year on prescription drugs.

“Compare this with the contribution people make to economic and social life when they’re well instead of dead or dying, and it is clear cost is not a genuine obstacle,” Chow said.

“Teachers back in schools. Farmers working their land. Mothers caring for their children. These drugs not only save lives, they help to rebuild societies. The cost of ignoring treatment needs is far higher than that of meeting them.”

The ultimate aim of the new strategy is to ensure everyone living with AIDS, even the poorest, has access to treatment.

The WHO said last week that 40 million people around the world were infected with HIV, and that the global AIDS epidemic showed no signs of abating.

The WHO hopes that better access to treatment will encourage those with HIV/AIDS to come forward for testing, something which is difficult for many in countries where the stigma of having AIDS often condemns sufferers to social isolation.

“Experience in Brazil and Haiti has shown where people can get treatment they have the courage to come forward,” he said.

Experts said a pillar of the new plan would be to increase the manufacture and distribution of combination therapy ARVs, under which patients need only take two pills a day.

Standard programmes in rich countries require eight or more pills a day. Patients in poor countries should comply better with the simpler treatment regime. Chow announced that the WHO had approved for use three separate three-in-one combination AIDS treatment pills that are key to its goal of getting ARVs to the world’s poor.

He said the cost of treatment was about $300 per year for each patient living in conditions of deep poverty. But the Medecins Sans Frontieres charity said governments should provide AIDS drugs free under the plan and pharmaceutical firms should cut prices further.

The strategy unveiled by Chow leaves it up to national governments to decide whether ARV drugs should be free.

“For the poorest no price will be affordable: governments of both developing and developed countries must meet these costs,” MSF President Morten Rostrup said in a statement.

The distribution of combination therapy has implications for the pharmaceutical business: patent restrictions have prevented multinational firms from producing combination pills.

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