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[BLANTYRE] Malawi has launched a five-year programme to provide free antiretroviral drugs to HIV/AIDS patients.

The US$196 million programme, funded by the Global Fund against Aids, Malaria and Tuberculosis, will start this month with the distribution of the drugs at two of the country's largest hospitals and a number of district hospitals.

Most Malawians are unable to afford antiretroviral drugs, and at present only 6,000 out of the 150,000 Malawians living with HIV/AIDS have access to the treatment.

Health and population minister, Yusuf Mwawa, says the programme will rapidly be extended to include more than 50 hospitals and clinics countrywide.

"[Antiretrovirals] have changed the face of AIDS from that of a fatal or deadly disease into a chronic condition," he said at the launch of the initiative this week. "Within the next 12 months it is expected that approximately 35,000 infected people [in Malawi] will be on [the] medication."

Mwawa warned that the government would take a tough line on street vendors selling counterfeit versions of the drugs. "These drugs should not be bought on the open market," he said. "The media, police, courts and the general public should not to be lenient to people who are going to sell [antiretrovirals] on the streets."

The launch of the programme comes barely a week before Malawians go to the polls to elect a new government. Asked if the move was part of the government's election campaign, Mwawa said that "elections or no elections, government must still function".

According to National AIDS Commission executive director, Biziwick Mwale, the major obstacle in implementing the free therapy will be inadequate personnel in the health ministry to distribute the drugs. 

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