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Nigeria will start providing AIDS drugs for free next year, the government agency in charge of fighting AIDS said, scrapping fees that aid workers say deny access to treatment for poor patients.
LAGOS, Nigeria (Reuters) -- Nigeria will start providing AIDS drugs for free next year, the government agency in charge of fighting AIDS said, scrapping fees that aid workers say deny access to treatment for poor patients.
Nigeria has 3.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, the third-highest number in the world after India and South Africa, and at the moment it has an estimated 40,000 people on subsidized anti-retroviral drugs, or ARVs.
"Up until now we provided ARVs at a subsidized rate, and patients had to pay 1,000 naira [$8] per month. They will not have to pay that anymore," said Babatunde Osotimehin, chairman of the National Action Committee on HIV/AIDS, on Saturday.
Nigeria's goal is to get 250,000 people on ARVs by the end of next year, and Osotimehin said providing the drugs for free would help meet that target by encouraging more people to come forward for treatment.
Funding for the free drugs will come from extra government money approved by President Olusegun Obasanjo as well as from major donors, including the World Bank, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and the U.S. government.
Two-thirds of Nigeria's 140 million people live on less than a dollar a day, and aid groups say many HIV-positive people are too poor to pay for drugs.
Relief organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has campaigned for Nigeria to provide free AIDS treatment, said the announcement of free ARVs was a step in the right direction but it did not go far enough.
Francois Giddey, head of mission in Nigeria for the Dutch section of MSF that runs an HIV/AIDS clinic in Lagos, said medical care for HIV victims does not consist only of ARVs.
He said patients have to treat frequent opportunistic infections and take a battery of medical tests monthly for ARVs to be administered correctly. The cost of these treatments, which patients have to pay for themselves, is 3,000 to 7,000 naira per month in addition to the cost of ARVs, he said.
Asked about this, Osotimehin said Nigeria would provide tests and treatment at a subsidized rate for adult patients, but details were still being worked out.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said earlier this month that it was dangerous to require HIV victims to pay for care because the cost meant they often interrupted treatment or took insufficient doses of drugs. This enables the virus to build up resistance to ARVs.
Osotimehin said all care would be free for HIV-positive pregnant women and children.
The U.N. Children's Fund warned in November that Nigerian children were increasingly at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and called for ARVs to be given to more pregnant women to avoid a catastrophic rise in infections.
UNICEF said fewer than 1 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women in Nigeria were getting proper drugs.
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