30 August 2007

Fear over ARV resistance

South Africa is facing the possibility of state Aids patients developing "major resistance" to currently prescribed antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, the health department has said.

South Africa is facing the possibility of state Aids patients developing "major resistance" to currently prescribed antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, health department director-general Thami Mseleku said on Thursday.

"The challenge is going to be huge because of the cost. It's 500% more to move to the second-level regimen of drugs," he told a parliamentary media briefing.

Mseleku was responding to a question on whether he thought the health department was facing a serious problem with people not completing their prescribed ARV treatment.

"The impression at the moment is that it's not many people who would necessarily not complete their treatment, but it's a significant number."

Challenges still to be overcome
"We have a number of challenges - for the number of people who started treatment a long time ago, they are now faced with a situation where they are likely to be developing resistance anyway, and would have to move to the second level of drugs. That in itself is a problem of resistance.

"Then you have that person who actually stops and goes and that also creates problems of resistance. If we talk in general, we are facing the possibility of a major resistance phase in the country, which we need to respond to by changing to the second-level regimen."

Mseleku was unable to put a figure on how many patients had fallen off the department's treatment programme, blaming this on "systems issues".

Existing figures were not "useful", and could not be presented comprehensively. “We're trying to compile them now," he said.

Earlier, he said an estimated "cumulative total" of 300 000 people had started ARV treatment at government facilities by the end of June this year.

"These are figures that are in the public sector, but if we added private sector figures we would go to about 500 000."

Preparing for the future
Asked if the department was currently trying to source second-line ARVs ahead of any possible resistance phase, Mseleku said: "In preparation we are in discussion with a variety of companies that may actually be able to provide these."

He said the department was confident it could reach a point in these discussions with the pharmaceutical companies where the price of the required drugs was "reasonable".

"But the challenge will be huge of course. Some of them are not necessarily drugs that are available readily in South Africa, and therefore we'll have to go through a whole range of processes of registration," Mseleku said. – (Sapa)

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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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