AIDS treatment in developing world accelerates

By Shaoni Bhattacharya About 700,000 people with AIDS in the developing world were receiving treatment by the end of 2004, as a result of a global initiative to widen access to antiretroviral drugs. This is an increase of 75% on the number receiving treatment in 2003 in these countries and meets an interim goal set by the “3 by 5” collaboration between the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the Global Fund and the US government. However, the final goal of the initiative is to get three million people with AIDS in the developing world on antiretroviral drugs by the end of 2005, meaning much remains to be achieved. And there are currently about six million people in the developing world in need of the drugs. Announcing the progress report on Wednesday, WHO director-general Lee Jong-wook said: “We salute the countries that have now shown us that treatment is possible and can be scaled up quickly, even in the poorest settings.” “It’s very encouraging,” says Catherine Hankins, chief scientific adviser to UNAIDS. “What’s really exciting is that the initiative is really strengthening health services as it goes along,” she told New Scientist. The heaviest burden of HIV/AIDS is in sub-Saharan Africa – 72% of untreated patients live there, according to WHO and UNAIDS estimates. In this region, the number of people receiving treatment has doubled over six months – from 150,000 to 310,000. Treatment access is also improving in Asia, some Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Brazil is a particular success story and “has the most advanced national HIV/AIDS treatment programme in the developing world” according to a “3 by 5” initiative statement. It has nationwide access to antiretroviral drugs and almost 100,000 deaths from AIDS have been averted over seven years – representing a 50% drop in mortality. But starting another 2.3 million HIV/AIDS patients on treatment by the end of 2005 will be very challenging. Crucial will be progress in the countries with the greatest need – including South Africa, India and Nigeria – says the initiative. But Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, notes that drugs are only one weapon in the battle against HIV. “People living with HIV need comprehensive services, from testing and counselling to nutritional support. And we must also renew our commitment to preventing new HIV infections,” he said. The use of antiretroviral drugs received a boost on Tuesday when the US drugs regulatory body – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – gave “tentative approval” to a generic combination AIDS drug manufactured by a South African company called Aspen Pharmacare. It is the first time the FDA has approved a generic HIV/AIDS drug made by a foreign company. The tentative approval means that although the drug cannot be marketed in the US for patent or exclusivity reasons, it does meet the FDA’s standards for quality, safety and efficacy. This in turn means it can be bought by US money pledged for tackling AIDS. In 2003, President George W Bush’s emergency plan for AIDS relief promised $15 billion to fight the AIDS pandemic. However, the US administration came under fire for refusing to purchase drugs that have not been reviewed by the FDA, meaning cheaper generic drugs could not be purchased at that time. More on these topics:
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