Under pressure to help the millions of people with AIDS in South Africa, the government approved a plan Wednesday to distribute free anti-retroviral medicine within five years to everyone who needs it.

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Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang announced the new effort after the weekly Cabinet meeting, adding that the start date for the program had not yet been established.

The government still needs to take bids on the contract to supply the medicine, train health care workers, and identify and upgrade distribution centers, particularly in rural areas, the minister said.

“There is still a long way to go,” she told a news conference. “I don’t want to raise false hopes, but a decision has been made. There is hope.”

The government previously refused to provide AIDS medicine through the health system, saying it would be too expensive and questioning the effectiveness of the drugs. That prompted allegations that South Africa was failing to aggressively fight a disease that is ravaging the country.

About 4.7 million South Africans, roughly 11 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. An estimated 600 to 1,000 South Africans die every day from AIDS-related complications.

National plan to treat thousands
Under pressure to act, the government ordered the health ministry to draft a national plan for the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs by the end of September.

The plan, drafted with the assistance of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Foundation, was submitted to Cabinet last week.

The government aims to treat 50,000 patients within the first year of the program.

Provincial governments will be charged with administering the program, ensuring at least one treatment center in every local health district within a year and in every municipality in the next five.

The plan is expected to cost $45.4 million in the first year and grow to nearly $689.5 million later, Tshabalala-Msimang said.

AIDS activists from the local Treatment Action Campaign said they had been waiting for this day for five years.

“This means that so many people that haven’t had access to AIDS drugs, that are dying every day, can finally get treatment,” said Rukia Cornelius, the group’s national executive secretary.

She cautioned, however, that the plan needed to be implemented “as soon as possible, or more lives would be lost.”

‘A huge breakthrough'
Provincial governments will be charged with rolling out the plan, including ensuring at least one treatment center is in operation in every local health district within a year, extending to one in every municipality in the next five.

“Once identified as HIV-positive, patients will be assessed for the stage of their illness and referred into appropriate medical care,” Tshabalala-Msimang said.

Treatment would focus on slowing the progression of the disease to full-blown AIDS, and maintaining good health through prompt diagnosis and treatment of opportunistic infections, she said.

UNAIDS co-ordinator for South Africa, Mbulawa Mugabe, said the delay in approving a plan had given the government time to ensure it was sustainable.

“This will feed into the global program where the United Nations is trying to put 3 million people in treatment by 2005,” he said. “It is a huge breakthrough for the country.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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