150 AIDS patients to benefit from pilot ARV programme

About 150 people living with AIDS in the Gambia will benefit from free anti-retroviral therapy in a pilot programme launched by the government this week, Doctor Sam McConkey, a director of the government's Medical Research Council, said on Wednesday.

During the first phase of the programme a group of 15 to 20 people would receive the drugs, which can dramatically improve the health of people living with AIDS and prolong their survival, McConkey said.

A first group of seven patients began receiving ARV therapy in the capital Banjul on Monday.

“A lot of hard work has gone into getting the drugs here and I my hope now is that we will see a scaling up of the ARV programme to benefit more people,” McConkey said.

Gambia's AIDS programme is largely financed by a US$15 million World Bank aid package.

According to the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) about 15,000 people in the Gambia were infected with the HIV virus in 2003. That was deemed to be equivalent to 1.6 percent of the country's sexually active population.

However, aid workers fear that the real HIV prevalence could be much higher in view of recent evidence indicating a steady rise in the sexual abuse of minors.

The former British colony of 1.3 million people lies on the coast of West Africa and is totally surrounded by Senegal.

Although the Gambia is a popular sea and sun destination for tourists from northern Europe, a UNICEF report published in May this year indicated that much of the sexual abuse in the country was committed by Gambian men.