Thousands more AIDS patients will start anti-retroviral drug therapy this year, health care providers say, thanks to a dramatic drop in drug prices and the possible infusion of several million dollars from the Global Fund.
The number of people on ARVs in Cambodia has nearly quadrupled in the past year to 2,300 patients, and authorities hope to push that number to 6,000 by this year’s end, and to 12,000 by the end of 2005.
But as Cambodia strives to meet its goal of supplying 50 percent of eligible patients with ARVs by 2005, the scramble is on to ensure long-term funding to match the lifetime commitment patients must make to the treatment.
Expanding ARV distribution “can’t wait until the system is perfect,” said Dr Veronique Bortolotti, an HIV and AIDS specialist with the World Health Organization. “We have to do everything at the same time.”
Currently, less than 10 percent of eligible patients receive ARV treatment, a regimen of three different drugs that block replication of the virus, at a handful of private hospitals and clinics throughout the country.
Cambodia will ask for about $40 million for HIV and AIDS treatment in the Global Fund’s fourth round, said Dr Mean Chhi Vun, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STIs. The proposal is due in April.
ARV providers are counting on the money to expand Cambodia’s ARV program and ensure a long-term drug supply, Bortolotti said.
Prohibitively expensive in the past, ARV drugs have plunged in price recently as governments and NGOs have pressured companies to lower prices in developing nations, Bortolotti said.
A year’s supply of basic ARV drugs costs about $220 per patient, Bortolotti said. One year ago, the same drugs cost $350.
Although failure to sustain treatment could result in a mutated, drug-resistant strain of the virus, moving ahead with the treatment is necessary, said Dr Tia Phalla, secretary-general of the National AIDS Authority.
The indirect costs of patients’ premature death, including care of orphans, could be several times more than the cost of ARV treatment, Tia Phalla said.
Urging the Ministry of Health to budget for ARV drugs in the future will be crucial, he said, as “we don’t know how long NGOs can sustain their support.”