JOHANNESBURG — The South African government has expanded its AIDS programme to allow people living with HIV to start antiretroviral treatment earlier, the national AIDS council said on Saturday.
Under the new programme, people who test positive for HIV would be put on anti-AIDS drugs when their CD4 count -- the level of white blood cells that strengthen the immune system -- drops to 350.
Previously state facilities offered the treatment only to people with a CD4 count of 200 or less, as well as pregnant women and people with tuberculosis.
"The South African National AIDS Council (SANC) has endorsed the National Health Council (NHC) policy to initiate treatment for all those who test positive with a CD4 count of 350 or less," the council said in statement after a meeting chaired by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection, with 5.6 million people out of a population of 50 million living with the virus, according UN figures.
Last year the government announced that more than a million people were receiving state-issued treatment.
The decision to boost the drugs roll-out was welcomed by AIDS groups and labour unions.
"It is a measure that will improve the quality of life of many people with HIV, reduce mortality and reduce new infections," AIDS advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said in a statement.
The South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU), the country's largest union body, hailed the initiative.
"This is another milestone in the battle to roll back the deadly HIV epidemic. If these new guidelines are effectively implemented, it will improve the quality of life of many people with HIV," the union said in a statement.
A study released by the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) in March indicated that AIDS deaths had fallen by nearly 25 percent from 2005 to 2010, due to scaled up access to life-saving drugs.
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