Nigerian AIDS Sufferers Face Drugs Shortage Despite Local Production

President Olusegun Obasanjo's government has struggled to keep Nigeria from becoming the country with the most HIV/AIDS cases in the world by launching public information campaigns, subsidizing drug programs, and starting local production of generic antiretrovirals. But doctors and campaigners in the country say this effort has fallen short because millions of Nigerians still cannot afford HIV/AIDS treatment. "There is a need not only to make the drugs available, but they have to be cheap," said Dr. Remi Kalejaiye, an AIDS expert at Lagos' military hospital.

With a population of around 137 million, 3.8 million Nigerians are HIV-infected and some 2.3 million have already died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to Health Minister Eyitayo Lambo. In 2001, the government imported $4 million worth of drugs from India to treat 10,000 adults and 5,000 children, setting up 25 treatment centers where the drugs were administered at the highly subsidized rate of 1,000 naira (US$7.50) per month. Wealthy Nigerians with access to imported antiretrovirals can pay up to $400 per month.

"Many die of HIV/AIDS because they cannot afford the drugs. Even with the government's subsidy, how many people can afford 1,000 naira?" asked Nwoke Anselm, program manager of AIDS Alliance Nigeria. Anselm also pointed out that the cost of monitoring tests needed every three months -- 17,500 naira (US$133) -- is even further beyond the means of most.

Kalejaiye said Nigeria should take a cue from Brazil and fight for patent rights to locally manufacture generic drugs. Obasanjo has taken a step in this direction by licensing the Indian firm Ranbaxy to produce generics. Rajesh Dhar, head of Ranbaxy in Nigeria, said that apart from winning patent rights, Nigeria should reduce the duties on imported drugs and raw materials to further lower costs.