September 8, 2005

South Africa says AIDS drugs on track despite critics

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's anti-AIDS drugs
program is on track but the government does not have the
resources to adequately monitor and evaluate the campaign, a
top official said on Thursday.

South Africa is the country hardest hit by the AIDS
pandemic with more than 5 million of its 45 million population
believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

AIDS activists have criticized President Thabo Mbeki's
government for its response to the epidemic, saying the
roll-out of publicly funded AIDS drugs has moved too slowly
since the program was introduced last year.

Thami Mseleku, director-general in the department of
health, said so far 61,000 people were on government
anti-retroviral drugs, up from 42,000 in early May and over the
53,000 target South Africa set for the first year of the

"In relation to our targets we have met the first set of
targets and we are now looking at quality improvement targets,"
he told reporters in Cape Town.

"We are on track with regard to ensuring that our sites
that are supposed to be spread all over (the country), at least
for access, are in place."

Mbeki's government resisted introducing the publicly funded
ARV program but bowed to pressure in late 2003.

Analysts say the roll-out has been hampered by a shortage
of affordable drugs and poor capacity in the state health
sector, as well as continued questions about political

Mseleku said the department did not have any data on how
many of the 61,000 people who started the program were still
taking ARVs. "We can't say that they are still on the program,
that is still a ongoing program of action -- strengthening our
systems to ensure that we follow up on that," he said.

Individuals taking the life-prolonging drugs have to keep
up with the medication for the rest of their lives.

Mark Heywood of AIDS lobby group Treatment Action Campaign
said the number of people on the program remained too low.

"We are still of the view that the number of people being
treated is growing too slowly and it is nowhere near matching
the number of people that need treatment, and that is about
half a million people," he said.