South Africa's long-delayed national rollout of Aids drugs will begin in April when the government makes funds available to all nine provinces, the health ministry said on Wednesday.The country's biggest Aids pressure group, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), had threatened to take the government to court before the April 14 elections unless it began the rollout.
The provision of Aids drugs has been a huge campaign issue, with the opposition Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party accusing the ruling African National Congress of dragging its feet.
A health ministy statement said grants to buy Aids drugs would be made to provincial health departments from April 2004.
It said about 40 pharmaceutical companies had expressed interest in supplying drugs nationwide and had until April 2 to submit tenders.
Negotiations will take place with short-listed companies during the month of May to secure the most competitive prices, it said.
Until the tenders are granted, provinces can buy drugs from other sources, but the government will co-ordinate procurement to ensure prices are the same throughout the country.
President Thabo Mbeki's government has frequently been criticised for moving too slowly against the epidemic.
In the past week Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who leads the IFP, slammed the ANC for standing idle as the county faced a holocaust.
Activists estimate about 600 South Africans die of Aids each day, and the number of children orphaned by Aids is projected to reach about two million by 2010.
Mbeki and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have in the past questioned the link between HIV and Aids and rejected widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) as too expensive.
The government says it is now ready to introduce these drugs, but activists say they fear the government is still not fully committed to the treatment programme. (Source: Manoah Esipisu, Reuters, www.iol.co.za, March 24 2004)