South African centre eases pain on wallet of AIDS drugs

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HIV/AIDS in AfricaA new US-funded clinic in downtown Johannesburg is giving hundreds of South African HIV sufferers a first chance to afford anti-retroviral drugs by offering them at a third of the market rate.

For years, patients with the AIDS virus have either had to dole out thousands of dollars a year for anti-retrovirals (ARVs) and accompanying treatment or else try their luck with the groaning public health system.

But now the Zuzimpilo medical centre, based in a rundown building at the heart of Johannesburg's inner city, aims to relieve some of the pressure on both cash-strapped patients and over-stretched hospitals.

"Up until Zuzimpilo came into being the options were either the public sector or the private sector," said the centre's female director Tinyiko Khosa.

"Those going to private centres were those on medical aid while the public sector took in those who couldn't afford medical aid," she added.

The average bill for consultations, laboratory tests and medicine is around 1,200 rand (170 dollars) a month, an intimidating sum for the majority of South Africans with or without a job.

By comparison, Zuzimpilo provides a similar service for around 350 rand.

Although a little more than 200,000 HIV sufferers are beneficiaries from a government-sponsored programme of ARVs, that figure represents only a fraction of the 5.5 million people affected by the disease. Nearly a million of those affected are regarded as being in need of ARVs to combat the diseases.

Zuzimpilo is the first of five such clinics which are scheduled to be opened and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

US Ambassador Eric Bost said the funding gap was something that had needed to be urgently addressed.

"Zuzimpilo is another important piece in the puzzle," Bost told AFP.

At the opening of the centre late last month, Bost underwent his own test for HIV as part of a bid to strip away the stigma surrounding the disease.

"In order to turn the tide against this pandemic, individuals need to take responsibility for stopping the spread of the virus. If by taking a test I encourage others to do so, terrific."

Khosa agreed that one of the keys to victory in the fight against AIDS was getting people to overcome fears about testing for HIV, adding it was better to know you were positive and set about treating it than to live in the dark.

The medics in the clinic are unashamed champions of the efficacy of ARVs in the fight against AIDS in a country where officials have previously been reluctant to acknowledge the link between HIV and AIDS.

Regardless of how advanced the disease is, Khosa said it was never "too late for one to start ARVs".

A 24-year-old Zuzimpilo patient, who asked not to be named, started taking ARVs for the first time earlier this month when she went to the clinic with a CD4 count of 76.

The CD4 count is used to measure the strength of the immune system and a patient is considered to have full-blown AIDS and needing treatment with a CD4 count of below 200.

"I wanted to change my lifestyle, and increase my CD4 count," she said, adding she had not been ready before this to seek treatment.

"I didn't look sick. At first I felt like I was fine."

She said the clinic afforded her privacy and a quality of treatment from staff that would not have been possible at a busy public hospital.

Managers at Zuzimpilo say they aim to have 1,000 people on ARVs within a year and between 800 and 1,000 on a separate "wellness programme".

Khosa says the response to the clinic, brightly decorated with modern furnishings and African art, has been overwhelming in its first three weeks.

"It's been humbling. It's not the number (of people) we expected. It's much more."

source - AFP