Over 14,000 on subsidised AIDS drugs run out of medication

More than 14,000 living with AIDS in Nigeria who had been receiving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs subsidised by the government are running out of supplies, an HIV/AIDS activist group said on Tuesday.

Nsikak Ekpe, president of AIDS Alliance Nigeria (AAN), an organisation which represents people living with AIDS in Africa's most populous country, said the government had stopped supplying drugs at almost all the 25 treatment centres selected for the programme across the country.

Those still lucky enough to be receiving medication were being issued with expired drugs, he told a news conference.

"By June 2003 some centres had stopped administering the drugs," Ekpe said, adding that over the past three months almost all had run out of ARV medicines.

"Those lucky to get the drugs have been given expired drugs," he added.

AAN activists said only one treatment centre, the Institute of Medical Research in Lagos, was still handing out subsidised antiretroviral drugs.

Ekpe said a total of 14,730 people had signed up for the ARV programme, which was launched in 2001 with the aim of providing cheap, generic antiretroviral drugs to 10,000 people living with AIDS in Nigeria.

An estimated 3.5 million of Nigeria's 120 million plus population are infected with the HIV virus.

Antiretroviral treatment with drugs purchased at commercial prices costs more than US $100 per month in Nigeria. However, the government scheme offered its beneficiaries a cocktail of drugs to improve their health and slow down the progression of AIDS for less than US $1 per month.

AAN members carried placards at the Lagos news conference accusing the government of a lack of commitment to the programme

They said most AAN members could not afford to buy the drugs at market prices and were now at "great risk" - meaning they would die. They noted that some of those who were no longer able to receive the subsidised antiretroviral drugs had already died.

The government recently announced that it had awarded a procurement contract for US $500 million worth of antiretroviral drugs, but AAN said the deal was not transparent and no indication had been given as to when the drugs would be delivered.

"We demand an investigation into the antiretroviral programme to find out why patients went without drugs for months, and why those who were 'fortunate' received expired drugs," AAN said in a statement.

Officials of the Federal Ministry of Health were not available for comment.