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ZAMBIA: World Bank to support HIV/AIDS programme

Photo: IRIN
President Levy Mwanawasa has undertaken to find the means to make free anti-AIDS drugs available to the needy.
lusaka, 3 May 2002 (PlusNews) - The World Bank has pledged US $42 million to help Zambia's anti-AIDS campaign, but disbursement of the funds will hinge on the response of an unpredictable parliament to a proposed new national HIV/AIDS policy.

The Zambian government and the World Bank reached agreement late last month on a programme under which the Bank would provide the funds to the Zambia National Response to HIV/AIDS (ZANARA) project. However, this is predicated on the passing of legislation that guarantees the provision of antiretroviral drugs to people who need them.

If passed into law, the HIV/AIDS bill drafted by the Zambian government would also criminalize the deliberate spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"One of the conditions that have been set are [for the government] to ensure that anti-HIV/AIDS legislation is put in place," World Bank resident representative Laurence Clarke told reporters. "We are aware that when parliament sits in the next session, the government will table an HIV/AIDS bill."

However, it is not clear if parliament, dominated by members of a hostile opposition, will support the bill. Opposition parliamentarians defined their political strategy in the House during its last sitting early this year, when they derailed the national budget by slashing the government's projected tax revenue and by refusing funding to some sectors.

While a concerted anti-AIDS drive led by civil society organisations saw HIV-infection rates among teenagers dropping significantly in the 1990s, Zambia's HIV/AIDS policy has largely remained ill-defined.

But in contrast to the previous government of Frederick Chiluba, the new administration of President Levy Mwanawasa has undertaken to find the means to make free anti-AIDS drugs available to the needy.

In a May Day address to the nation broadcast on Wednesday, Mwanawasa directed employers to provide free antiretrovirals to workers who were HIV-positive.

The United Nations has undertaken to help the government make antiretroviral drugs accessible to ordinary Zambians, but is not sure whether or not the drugs should be provided free of charge.

"We fully support the government's plan to make antiretroviral drugs accessible to all and, in fact, we are currently helping it set up a pilot project under which infrastructure to provide this service will be developed," UNAIDS country programme advisor Kenneth Ofusu-Barko told IRIN.

"However, whether or not the drugs will be provided free or charge is a policy decision the government will have to make. Some countries are able to provide free antiretroviral drugs, and others cannot. We do not prescribe one approach or the other. Each government makes its own decision," he added.

Zambia has one of the highest HIV-prevalence rates in the world, with an estimated 20 percent of its 10.3 million people believed to be HIV-positive. The pandemic has pushed life expectancy down from a peak of over 50 years at independence in the mid-1960s to around 37 years. Some 520,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS since 1999, and that number is expected to rise to 895,000 by 2009.

Despite the alarming death toll resulting from AIDS-related complications, only a few thousands of the over one million people who have HIV/AIDS have access to antiretroviral drugs.

"Most of us do not use antiretrovirals because they are too expensive for us," explained Kunyima Banda, acting coordinator of the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, an organisation of over 3,000 members.

A month's supply of antiretrovirals in Lusaka costs about US $250 - an impossible sum in a country where an estimated 80 percent of the population lives on less than one dollar per day.

"We have been advocating for the provision of free antiretroviral drugs for a long time, and they would be very welcome. However, providing the drugs alone would not be enough. The authorities would also have to provide drugs for opportunistic infections, and for food supplements. It is very important that one maintains a good diet when one starts to take antiretrovirals. Otherwise, the side effects may outweigh the benefits," Banda told IRIN.

"The programme would also have to be accompanied by continuous counselling and monitoring to ensure that the recipients take the drugs consistently. Can the government afford to do all this? It remains to be seen," she added.

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Other,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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