S.Africa drafting revised AIDS battle plan

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CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's cabinet on Thursday endorsed a revised version of its national blueprint to fight HIV/AIDS, which has come under increasing criticism as the epidemic cuts an ever deeper swathe through the population.

Sub-Saharan Africa's most powerful economy, South Africa faces a public health crisis as it battles to contain burgeoning HIV infection rates amid an outbreak of extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis, which could prove particularly deadly for HIV positive people.

South Africa already has an estimated 5 million people infected with HIV and 500,000 more are infected annually.

"We are currently finalizing a revised comprehensive plan for HIV/AIDS," cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko told a news briefing in parliament.

President Thabo Mbeki's government is often accused of dragging its feet over the AIDS crisis, and only bowed to public pressure in 2004 to introduce a public program for anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, the only treatment known to slow the course of the disease.

AIDS activists say the government has failed to meet its goals and too many people are still dying for want of the drugs.

"We continue to implement the comprehensive plan ... (but) a number of challenges were identified, for instance the fact that we are not able to roll out the provision of ARVs sufficiently in a manner that we would have liked, so obviously that means we take urgent steps to deal with it," Maseko said.

He added that more clinics also needed to be accredited to dispense the ARVs.

Maseko said "significant progress" had been made to build partnerships in the fight against HIV/AIDS, often characterized by acrimonious confrontation between the Department of Health and activists such as the Treatment Action Campaign.

Those tensions spilled into the open again at the global AIDS conference in Toronto in August, where South Africa was slammed by activists, U.N. officials and top AIDS doctors for its "pseudo-scientific" approach to fighting the disease.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has been appointed head of a new inter-ministerial committee on HIV/AIDS, sidelining Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who has had an especially bitter relationship with activists in the past.

"It was absolutely essential for all stakeholders to start working together and pulling in the same direction. The tensions that had existed previously had led to an environment where there wasn't sufficient communication," Maseko said.

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