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SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: Island state steps up fight against HIV/AIDS

Sao Tome and Principe is stepping up the fight against HIV/AIDS, which is becoming a serious problem in this small twin-island state as drilling for oil gets underway in its offshore waters.

Some of the funds from a new US $6.5 million aid package from the World Bank to support health and education projects will be used to combat the disease, and the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) is helping the government to introduce antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

No reliable statistics exist at present in this tiny country of 140,000 people, but 151 are registered as living with HIV/AIDS, and health officials estimate that about 3,000 people are HIV-positive.

The main hospital in Sao Tome, the capital, has an HIV testing and counselling centre and WHO is helping the government to launch ARV treatment for an initial group of about two dozen people.

Local doctors have been trained in Portugal and Mozambique on how to administer the drugs, which can prolong the lives of HIV-positive people. The first batch of medication has already arrived and treatment is due to start in January 2005.

The impact of the pandemic so far has been limited, as relatively few outsiders visit these volcanic islands off the coast of Gabon, where the inhabitants have traditionally eked out a living by exporting cocoa.

All this is set to change next year, when international oil companies start drilling in Sao Tome's deep offshore waters and foreign oilmen enter the country.

The government has agreed to develop a large swathe of its offshore acreage in association with Nigeria, and is due to sign its first exploration contract with ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and the Nigerian oil company RER on Wednesday.

So confident are these companies of finding large oil reserves that they have offered to pay a joint signature bonus of US $123 million for the privilege of being allowed to drill in one of five blocks to be allocated in the coming months. Sao Tome stands to receive 40 percent of that sum - a fortune compared to the $3 million to $4 million the country receives each year for its cocoa exports.

Four more offshore blocks are due to be licensed to foreign oil companies in March.

With low condom usage and more than half the population living on less than one dollar a day, health officials fear an explosion of HIV/AIDS in the country unless urgent measures are taken to curb the spread of the pandemic.

The last HIV/AIDS survey was undertaken in 2000 and indicated a prevalence rate of just one percent, but health officials warn that the situation today is much more serious. The WHO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are due to conduct a new HIV/AIDS survey in 2005.

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

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

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