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New South African
clinic offers affordable HIV treatment

New South African
clinic offers affordable HIV treatment

The U.S. ambassador was the first person to be tested Tuesday at a new clinic in South Africa offering subsidized HIV treatment and designed to be an alternative to both expensive private care and the overburdened public system. Eric Bost was tested at the opening of the Zuzimpilo Medical Center in downtown Johannesburg, days before World Aids Day on Friday. The center, funded by a $1 million grant from USAID, is the first of its kind in South Africa.

''I am concerned that if we don't do things differently, we won't have the future thinkers and doers the country needs,'' Bost said.

South Africa has an estimated 5.4 million people with HIV/AIDS, the second highest in the world after India. About 26% of economically active adults are infected with the virus, but only about 200,000 people are on antiretroviral drugs.

Tinyiko Khosa, director of the new center, said the clinic is aimed at those people earning less than $1,410 a month who cannot afford medical aid or to take a day off to stand in the long queues at government facilities where treatment is free.

''Up until now South Africans have only been able to go to the very expensive private sector or the public sector, which caters for the very poor. We are bridging that gap,'' she said.

Khosa said the cost of providing ARV treatment, including drugs, laboratory tests, and consultations, is about $165 a month. The clinic will offer these services for a monthly fee of $48.

Neil Martinson, an AIDS expert who has been one of the key people behind the clinic, said despite the increased pace of the government's rollout of antiretroviral drugs, there are still cases of working people dying of the disease, pointing to a need for alternative treatment services.

''Our mission is to increase the number of people on ARVs,'' Martinson said.

Khosa said after a year they aim to have 1,000 people on drug treatment and to be doing eight HIV tests a day. There are also plans for similar clinics elsewhere in the country.

The government also reported Tuesday that more South Africans are voluntarily getting counseled and tested for HIV, with figures rising annually. The department of health said that more than 1.7 million people used voluntary testing services in the past financial year. Between April 2005 and March 2006 there were 1,715,588 people who received pre-HIV testing counseling and 80% of them were tested for HIV. About 35% of those who were tested were found to be HIV-positive.

''The trend is that it seems to be almost doubling every year,'' said department spokesman Sibani Mngadi.

Mngadi said the progress was largely attributed to the government's HIV and AIDS awareness campaign and the wide accessibility of the service. Voluntary counseling and testing facilities are available in more than 90% of clinics.

''Voluntary counseling and testing is critical in enhancing HIV prevention efforts and improving the effectiveness of care and treatment services,'' he said.

The government has been criticized for doing too little to get treatment to those infected. But in October, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka was appointed to take the lead on AIDS policy, sidelining the much-criticized health minister. The government is soon expected to outline a new plan to increase access to treatment. (AP)

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