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Hope and scepticism over free HIV drugs

New Delhi, Dec. 1: Non-governmental organisations working with HIV/AIDS patients today welcomed the health ministry’s decision to provide anti-retroviral drugs free of cost to patients in the high-risk states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Nagaland and Manipur from April 1.

But the NGOs who lauded the proposal on the occasion of World AIDS Day are sceptical about the practical aspects of implementing the plan, which is to be routed through government hospitals. State governments, they say, must involve NGOs which have been doing the bulk of work for HIV/AIDS patients, apart from the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco), if the scheme is to succeed.

Union health minister Sushma Swaraj, while announcing the scheme, had said it would cost about Rs 200 crore a year — Rs 113 crore for medicine and the remaining Rs 87 crore for screening HIV/AIDS patients. The scheme will zero in on mothers and children who have been infected by the virus.

According to Naco estimates, two lakh children are suffering from the disease. There are no estimates of infected mothers. The total number of HIV/AIDS people in India stands at 4.85 million, making the country second only to South Africa in terms of prevalence of the disease.

The decision to supply anti-retroviral drugs free came after the health ministry held a series of meetings with manufacturing companies who agreed to give them to the government at a cheaper price.

At present, a patient on anti-retroviral drugs spends Rs 40 daily. Companies, according to reports, have agreed to slash the price to an average of Rs 18 per patient. They also offered a further slash of Rs 2 if exemptions are given on levies.

Swaraj has taken up the matter with finance minister Jaswant Singh so that the next Union Budget can provide these exemptions to the companies.

Naco authorities said the government would immediately arrange for the necessary infrastructure in order to put the scheme into effect. At least one crore paramedics will have to be hired to administer the drug.

According to Irfan Khan, in-charge of a centre run by the Naaz Foundation, an NGO, the total cost of drugs for the treatment ranges between Rs 1,500 and Rs 15,000.

“In our care centre, only 40 inmates are able to afford them,” says Khan. “We buy them wholesale and distribute at a 7-9 per cent discount rate.”

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