BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand rolled out a national plan on Saturday to give life-saving drugs to people living with HIV-AIDS, one of the few Asian nations to offer universal treatment in a region where the virus threatens to run rampant.
Thailand, long a model for prevention against a virus that infects some 540,000 Thais, says 80,000 people will receive anti-retroviral drugs under an expanded programme covered by the public healthcare plan.
"This will help people live a normal life. That means they can go back to work and earn money for their families," said Dr. Sombat Thaenprasertsuk, director of the Public Health Ministry's HIV-AIDS division.
Some 60,000 Thais already get ARVs through ad-hoc programmes funded mostly by short-term budgets, he said.
Now, the drugs will be covered by Thailand's "30-baht scheme" -- an ambitious programme to provide the country's 63 million people with cheap but high-quality public healthcare.
"Including it in the universal plan guarantees that everyone can get access," he said, adding that another 20,000 people would go on treatment over the next 12 months.
Under the plan, a patient can walk into any of the 900 designated hospitals and pay 30 baht ($0.72) for drugs costing between 1,200 a month for locally-made generic versions to 10,000 baht a month for imported drugs.
Most will receive generic ARVs produced in Thailand. But a few thousand believed to be resistant to those drugs will receive drug combinations that include imported medicines, Sombat said.
The government, which expects the number of people needing ARVs to rise to 200,000 over the next five years, has budgeted 2.8 billion baht for the drug programme in fiscal 2006.
WHAT ABOUT PREVENTION?
"It's good news and other countries like China and India should learn a lesson from this," Prasada Rao, a senior UNAIDS official in the Asia-Pacific region, said of the Thai plan.
The United Nations says 12 million people could be infected with HIV in Asia over the next five years, driven by low condom use, limited access to testing, gender inequality and widespread sex work and injection drug use.
AIDS has spread to all provinces in China, where the government says there are 840,000 patients and experts fear infection rates could spiral higher.
India is home to 5.1 million of Asia's 8.2 million people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
AIDS has killed some 551,000 Thais since the first case was diagnosed in 1984, but the toll could have been much worse.
Experts say the country averted 5.7 million new infections thanks to a massive prevention campaign in the 1990s that focused on getting people to use condoms.
The government bombarded billboards and airwaves with safe sex messages, while health workers promoted condom use in the country's notorious sex trade.
But activists say that success has made Thais complacent.
The number of new infections is no longer falling as rapidly as it did in the last decade, said a study by the World Health Organization and Public Health Ministry in August.
It said Thai youths were engaging more frequently in risky sex than their peers a few years ago. And the success of the "100 percent" condom campaign was being eroded due to inadequate condom supplies and resources to reach out to sex workers.
"It's a good thing that we have a programme to treat people, but we have fallen asleep on prevention," said veteran AIDS activist Senator Meechai Viravaidya.
Thai newspapers reported last week that the government had approved 3.4 billion baht for public education on HIV-AIDS, but Meechai said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should take a lead role in that effort.
"The Prime Minister has been chairman of the national AIDS committee but has not attended one meeting," he said.
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