AIDS campaigners lukewarm over new government policy

The Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS) - a loose group of organisations spearheading the campaign for free access to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment in Uganda – has said it has grave doubts about a new Ugandan government draft policy on ARVs.

According to the draft policy, formulated by the health ministry, the government of Uganda wants half the country’s AIDS patients to receive free antiretroviral treatment by 2005, using money procured from the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS.

The ministry has said it will use the US $9m it expects from the Global Fund to buy antiretroviral drugs from one or more of the big pharmaceutical companies currently holding patents on them. The money will be used to provide combination drug therapy, as well as counselling, to about 40,000 people over the next three years.

“Ministers were not always in favour of buying these expensive drugs,” Dr Elizabeth Madra, ministry official in charge of drafting government policy on HIV/AIDS told IRIN. “But with this Global Fund cash alongside a further US $3m we got from the World Bank, it looks like we now might have the money to do it, if we plan carefully.”

But HEPS coordinator Rosette Mutambi said she doubted the government would meet its target if it sticks to the branded ARVs of the big drug companies.

“We still don't know when the money is coming in,” she told IRIN. “Forget targets - this could take 3-4 years. In the meantime people are dying. What we want is a clear commitment to buy affordable generic drugs, not dithering while we wait for money to buy these expensive brands."

According to the government’s draft policy, the first quantity of drugs to be allocated will be set aside for prevention.

But Madra said priority should be given to healthcare workers "who get accidental needle pricks and things like that”.

"And for prophylaxis in rape cases, where it isn’t usually possible to know the status of the attacker,” she added.

One million Ugandans are estimated to have died of AIDS since the disease was first identified in 1989. Most of them are from Uganda’s poorer rural areas.

The government of Uganda has drawn universal praise from the international community for its uniquely strong commitment to tackling the problem of HIV/AIDS. Largely because of government policy over AIDS education, Uganda’s prevalence rates are believed to have fallen to around 6 percent, compared with 16 percent in neighbouring Kenya, 20 percent in South Africa and 39 percent in Botswana.