Medecins Sans Frontieres(MSF) has announced plans to start a treatment programme for people living with AIDS on both sides of the frontline in the volatile west of Cote d'Ivoire.
Martin Sloot, the head of MSF-Holland in Cote d'Ivoire, said the programme would be based at hospitals in the rebel-held towns of Man and Danane and the government-held town of Bin-Houye and would serve an estimated local population of 500,000.
"We have completed the training of counsellors and we can begin testing as soon as we have the go-ahead of Cote d'Ivoire's National Programme to Fight HIV/AIDS, which is preparing a final assessment mission," told IRIN.
"We have high hopes that we can start this summer," he added.
The ‘Wild West’ of Cote d'Ivoire has remained prone to sporadic outbreaks of violence, despite a two-year-old ceasefire that has brought a fragile truce to most other areas of the country.
President Laurent Gbagbo said last week that more than 100 people died in the latest outbreak of tit-for-tat killings between Guere villagers and incomers from other parts of Cote d'Ivoire near the town of Duekoue.
Most hospitals and health clinics in the west ceased to function shortly after the civil war broke out in September 2002. Many of those that remain open rely heavily on support from non-governmental organisations such as MSF.
There are no reliable figures of HIV prevalence in western Cote d’Ivoire, but a study published by MSF in April revealed an "alarmingly high" incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in the region.
The study reported that 20 percent of all patients at MSF clinics in the West suffered from sexually transmitted diseases such as syphylis, gonorhea and herpes and that 17 percent of all blood screened for transfusions tested HIV positive.
"Even if we don't have reliable data, these numbers were high enough for us to say: we have to do something," Sloot said.
MSF's AIDS treatment programme would include voluntary testing, counselling and the distribution of free antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to people who needed them, he added.
The project will be run jointly by MSF Belgium, which operates the hospital in Man, and MSF Holland, which works in Danane hospital and runs a mobile clinic for villagers on both sides of the frontline.
Sloot said Danane hospital would be equipped with a special ward for people with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) – the most common disease associated with AIDS patients.
"We are calling it a chronic diseases ward to avoid any stigmatisation," he said.
At present, ARV therapy, which can prolong the life of people living with AIDS, is only available in the capital Abidjan.
There, patients have to pay a flat charge of 5,000 CFA (US $10) every three months for subsidised drugs handed out by the government.
TB patients in western Cote d'Ivoire already receive free treatment which is paid for by the government, Sloot said.
Cote d'Ivoire has the highest HIV prevalence rate in West Africa. It was previously estimated by the government and international organisations and nine percent of the adult population, but the latest figures from UNAIDS put it slightly lower at seven percent.