People living with HIV/AIDS around the country are anxiously waiting to see whether Cabinet will approve an operational plan to introduce antiretroviral drugs into the public health sector.
Cabinet may decide on the plan as early as Wednesday - the Department of Health finally made ready all the necessary documents late last week.
The plan was due to be tabled at the last Cabinet meeting almost two weeks ago. But some last-minute queries, arising from a meeting of the minister of health and the task team of provincial MECs that drew up the plan, delayed the process.
Even if Cabinet approval is immediate - and the plan is so far advanced that it is unlikely to face opposition - the drugs will probably not reach patients until early next year.
The immediate priority is to prepare health facilities and provide training for health workers - the vast majority of whom have had absolutely no training in antiretroviral treatment.
While the detail of the operational plan has been a tightly guarded secret, insiders close to the task team say it proposes that each health district in the country should have a service point to deliver antiretroviral drugs.
This means that initially there will be 56 service points countrywide. These will be centred at hospitals, but may also include the clinics that the selected hospital serves. Metropolitan areas, which each count as a health district, are likely to be permitted to have more than one service point.
Initially, the task team had proposed that provinces should identify their own sites. However, the Department of Health apparently rejected this idea in favour of the district-based model, fearing a more ad hoc approach would be inequitable.
Government does not want to face another embarrassing court challenge, such as the one brought by the Treatment Action Campaign in 2001 that forced it to extend its prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission programme from 18 pilot sites to all health facilities that requested it.
According to the current proposal, doctors will be in charge of the plan. They will assess patients, prescribe the antiretroviral drugs and check on patients every three months. However, patients will be expected to come to their service centre every month, where nurses will check their progress and drug adherence.
I would support that, says Professor Robin Wood, who has been piloting antiretroviral treatment in the public sector in Guguletu in the Western Cape.
A district-based, doctor-driven, nurse-monitored plan strikes me as being very reasonable.
The plan needs to work within the legal and medical framework. Legally, the drugs have to be prescribed by a doctor not a nurse, adds Wood, who is professor of medicine at the University of Cape Town and currently oversees around 500 patients on
Before patients get their drugs, they will be expected to attend three treatment training sessions. These will explain how the drugs work and the common side effects and help patients to work out a treatment plan that will ensure they take the drugs every day at the same time.
Studies show that unless patients adhere to their treatment plan 95% of the time, the drugs will not work properly. Each patient needs to take three different drugs - called triple therapy - to ensure they do not develop drug-resistant HIV.
The Guguletu project, which has been operational for 15 months, works in a similar manner to the blueprint envisaged by the task team plan.
Over 95% of our 180 patients at Gugulethu are adherent [to their treatment plan], explains Wood. But the real challenge is to achieve this on a wider
Under-serviced rural hospitals pose a particularly tough challenge, as Dr Paul Pronyk, director of Wits University's Rural AIDS and Development Action Research Programme, based in rural Limpopo, knows only too well.
He sees the chronic lack of health resources every day, and says, a systematic and cautious approach is necessary for the roll-out of antiretrovirals at Limpopo hospitals.
The antiretroviral roll-out is not simply about administering drugs, says Pronyk. Hospital laboratories don't work. Health workers need to be trained. Proper patient registers need to be kept. Patients need counselling. The drug supply must be safe and secure, because there will be a public health disaster if they get into the black market.
Nevertheless, Pronyk believes that universal access to antiretrovirals is possible - but only if there is full buy-in by government, which results in large-scale capacity building.
He points out that there are massive funds available for the antiretroviral rollout, both from the South African government and international donors.
No other disease has grabbed the world's attention as HIV/AIDS has, and foreign donors and governments want to be seen to be assisting those countries in need.
The Clinton Foundation has been working closely with the task team that developed the operational plan. It has offered technical support to South Africa to strengthen its antiretroviral rollout.
US President George W Bush has also promised millions of dollars to fight the spread of AIDS in South Africa and other affected countries.
These massive resources can be co-opted to strengthen the healthcare system, suggests Pronyk. People don't die because of lack of drugs in the rural hospitals. A diabetic can die in a rural hospital, not because there is no insulin, but because there are no batteries for the machine that tests the glucose level. These are management issues.
One thing that has lightened the government's load in recent weeks has been the dramatic lowering of antiretroviral prices. Last week the Clinton Foundation announced that it had brokered a deal with generic manufacturers, including the Johannesburg-based company Aspen Pharmacare, that would reduce the price of triple therapy to about R81 per patient a month for public-sector buyers. This is less than half the previous best price available.
The good news with generics is that the three drugs from different companies can be made into one pill, which means patients only have to take two pills a day instead of six.
The TAC has described this huge reduction as excellent progress, although it is concerned that some of the generic manufacturers have not been licensed by patent holders to produce generic versions of their drugs. This means that they could infringe patents if they do produce the drugs.
In addition, the Medicines Control Council has not yet licensed some of the generic antiretrovirals that have been given the go-ahead by patent holders.
It may take a little while to sort out these complications, but the massive price reduction makes antiretroviral intervention far more affordable as a life-long treatment option.
But prevention is still the best medicine, and the Department of Health is concerned that the antiretroviral treatment rollout must go hand-in-hand with prevention.
Recent studies show that after antiretroviral treatment became established in the gay community of San Francisco, which had been hard hit by AIDS, many people became complacent and reverted to risky sexual
behaviour. Wood is also concerned that health workers do not see the drugs as a miracle cure.
There are great expectations, but there is a high complication rate and lots of adverse effects in the first three months when you are treating people with very advanced AIDS. Some 10% to 20% of sick patients - with CD4 counts of less than 100 - develop life-threatening complications and can die.
While there are no miracle cures, British medical journal the Lancet published a study a few weeks ago demonstrating that antiretroviral treatment could buy patients at least 10 more years of life.
The thought of spending 10 more productive years with the people they love is a powerful message of hope for the 4.5-million South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. - Health-e News Service. (Source: Kerry Cullinan: The Sunday Times, 2 November 2003)
Determinants of survival following HIV-1 seroconversion after the introduction of HAART
A new way of measuring CD4+ lymphocyte counts in HIV-1-infected people
Scientists have come up with a faster and cheaper HIV/AIDS monitoring technique which could make treatment more affordable in developing countries.
A study conducted by researchers in Zambia's University Teaching Hospital and the University College in London, has found that spots of dried blood, filter paper and inexpensive commercially available chemicals, could be developed into a field-friendly alternative to the sophisticated technology required to carry out CD4 count testing. A CD4 count measures the strength of the immune system.
Existing guidelines for managing patients on antiretroviral (ARV) therapy use viral load and CD4 count testing to measure the impact of ARVs on the patient's health.
Although ARVs are increasingly becoming available in African countries at reduced prices, the high cost of monitoring equipment remains one of the biggest obstacles.
In Zambia, where the government has announced plans to treat up to 10,000 HIV-positive people in state hospitals and clinics, a CD4 count test can cost up to US $40.
But the equipment for measuring CD4 counts is not widely available and is limited to tertiary institutions and private hospitals, Dr Peter Mwaba of the University Teaching Hospital, and one of the study's researchers, told
According to the study findings published in the UK-based Lancet Journal, the present gold standard for CD4 count tests was the flow cytometer - a machine which counts cells as they go through a laser beam.
There are a lot of tests that are used to measure CD4 count and viral load. But with all these tests, fresh samples of blood are required. This is not practical in countries like mine where there are no laboratory facilities in rural areas, Mwaba commented.
Researchers at the University Teaching Hospital took blood spots from 42 HIV-positive patients and put them on filter paper, which was allowed to dry. The test samples were then sent to a central clinic without refrigeration.
The blood spots were analysed using a simple test involving antibodies that latched onto CD4 cells. The bound antibodies caused a colour change in a solution made from the dried blood: a deeper colour equaled a higher cell count.
The report found that filter papers offered an attractive alternative to use of fresh whole blood. Once the samples have dried, the filter papers can be stored at room temperatures for long periods before being batched and sent to a central laboratory.
The results compared very well to the [flow] cytometer - there were some very slight variations but these won't change the meaning of the result, Mwaba noted.
He pointed out, however, that the new technique still needed to be refined. We can't get excited on 42 patients, we are planning on expanding the tests and we are looking at a larger trials involving about 1,000 patients.
Nevertheless, the implications for African countries considering the roll-out of ARVs can not be ignored. A CD4 count using this new method could cost up to US $5 in the developing world and patients receiving treatment could also be managed properly, he said.
Mwaba called for African scientists to take such work forward and come up with innovative ways to provide such technology. ( Source: IRIN, PLUSNEWS 4 November, 2003)
Use of dried whole blood spots to measure CD4+ lymphocyte counts in HIV-1-infected patients