HARARE, May 3 (Reuters) Zimbabwe is running out of anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS as a foreign currency shortage hobbles government efforts to provide 20,000 people with the life-saving medicine, state media said today.
The acting director of Zimbabwe's National Pharmaceutical Company said his firm was struggling to find funds to buy ARVs for people with AIDS, which experts say kills an average of 3,000 Zimbabweans every week, the Herald newspaper said.
''There are 20,000 people on the ARVs national programme and we have less than a month's supply of the vital drugs and that is not encouraging,'' Charles Mwaramba told a visiting group of parliamentarians.
The health sector is among those hardest hit by Zimbabwe's severe economic crisis, which has brought shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency along with water and power cuts and an inflation rate of almost 1,000 per cent.
The embattled southern African country also lies close to the heart of Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic, with the government estimating 1.61 million people infected with the virus.
Zimbabwe's total population is 12 million people.
But in a rare bit of good news Zimbabwe's adult HIV prevalence has fallen to around 20 per cent from 25 per cent five years ago, apparently due to increased condom use and people having fewer sexual partners.
Neither Health Minister David Parirenyatwa nor Mwaramba was immediately available for comment today.
COMPETING PRIORITIES But the Herald said Mwaramba reported that his company, which serves as Zimbabwe's main drugs repository, had been allocated just 106,000 dollars for ARVs by the central Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe between January and March instead of the 7.4 million dollars it required.
''We understand that drugs are also competing with other items like fuel for foreign currency but the picture is not encouraging,'' he was quoted as saying.
Mwaramba said the European Union was providing aid for various drugs, but that funding Zimbabwe had applied for from Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to extend the state ARV programme to another 25,000 people would not be available until January 2007.
Other drugs, including painkillers and those for treating tuberculosis and high blood pressure, are also in short supply, he said.
Last month, two of Zimbabwe's main government hospitals were forced to ration meals for patients after a supplier suspended food deliveries over an unpaid debt, while private hospitals have hiked charges by between 100 and 1,000 per cent.
President Robert Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, rejects charges he has misruled Zimbabwe, and blames the economic crisis on sabotage by his political foes and international sanctions imposed over allegations of political repression.
REUTERS KD KP1626