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AIDS Fight Requires More than Inexpensive Drugs

The State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) announced on Sunday that China produces five drugs that can be used in four different combinations to treat AIDS patients.

According to the SFDA report, if the patients use domestic medicines, their expenditure for the treatment will be around 3,000 yuan (US$362) annually, or one-tenth the cost of using imported medicines.

This substantial reduction is definitely worth a salute, especially for a country with 840,000 carriers of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and 80,000 full-blown cases of the disease.

Affordable drugs provide a substantial degree of relief for the patients, and that is why the authorities, including SFDA, are making efforts to facilitate the production of anti-AIDS medications in China.

Now that the prices of the pills are much more reasonable, it is hoped the treatment can cover more patients.

But cheaper drugs are not enough.

According to official statistics, China's farmers, who account for 60 per cent of the population, had an average annual net income of only 2,622 yuan (US$316) in 2003. If a farmer becomes an AIDS patient, there's a very good chance he can't afford medical treatment.

It's a fact that most AIDS patients are financially disadvantaged because of their illness, and few are able to scrape out even the average level of income.

As a matter of fact, given the country's real situation, the medicine can never be cheap enough for every AIDS patient, even if further price cuts are made.

In April 2003 the government launched a project under which AIDS patients in poverty-stricken provinces could receive free drugs, but the dropout rate reached 20 per cent after six months.

The expert leading the project attributed the dropout to the lack of trained medical workers, inadequate varieties of available drugs and the patients' fear of potential side-effects from the treatments.

AIDS is not an illness that can be cured simply by taking pills. Adequate medical networking, informed medical workers and support from the patients themselves must be in place for any treatment to have a real impact.

Besides the medical aspect, AIDS patients and HIV carriers also need other kinds of support.

Sympathy and understanding may be too much to ask for from most people, but at least discrimination and prejudice should be fought.

Though Premier Wen Jiabao shook hands with AIDS patients last December, examples of police officers being reluctant to touch a pen or desk used by HIV-positive suspects are still too common.

We applaud cheaper drugs for AIDS patients, but we also look forward to more support for HIV carriers and AIDS patients, that will benefit the whole society.

(China Daily April 6, 2004)

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