Health Minister Yusuf Mwawa said the free drugs programme “at long last will open doors of hope for those who have all too long been living with the despair infected by the Aids scourge”.
Antiretrovirals are “life-saving and have changed the face of Aids from that of a fatal disease into a chronic condition,” he said.
Mwawa said that Malawi, which only launched its policy on HIV/Aids earlier this year, was still in the midst of a “devastating epidemic” in the poor southern African country of 12 million people.
“Malawi, with its relatively small population, has almost as many HIV-infected people as the United States of America and Canada combined,” he said. An estimated 900 000 people have HIV in Malawi, according to United Nations statistics.
Mwawa said a “massive army” of 85 000 die every year from Aids-related illnesses.
Malawi has received $9,5-million (almost R70-million) from the Global Fund for antiretroviral drugs this year, Mwawa said.
The fund has bankrolled the country’s Aids programme to the tune of $196-million over five years from 2004.
He said four major hospitals will start dispensing the drugs, reaching 50 outlets by July, including hospitals of the Malawi army and police, where HIV/Aids has also hit hard.
Mwawa said currently only 6 000 Malawians are on antiretrovirals out of 150 000 “who are in need of this therapy”.
“We hope within the next 12 months to have approximately 35 000 persons on medication, representing a seven-fold increase over the current situation,” Mwawa said.
Erasmus Morah from the United Nations Aids agency, UNAids, who was at the launch of the free antiretroviral treatment, told reporters that “the biggest challenge facing the free drugs programme is HIV testing”.
“The real issue is that you have to be tested to be given ARVs,” he said.
Only 215 000 Malawians have gone for voluntary HIV tests.
“Our target is have 500 000 people go for HIV tests by 2005,” Biswick Mwale, head of Malawi’s national Aids commission, said.
Almost 760 000 adults in Malawi are infected with HIV, 56 percent of them women.
President Bakili Muluzi, who retires in May after his second five-year term expires, has urged Malawians to go for HIV tests, saying he himself had undergone one with “good news”.