RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

AIDS has been a scourge of Africa, where millions are infected with HIV. And the continent has a lot to gain from improvements in treating the disease. So if putting people who are HIV-positive on anti-AIDS drugs far earlier than now would slow down the illness, that should be welcome news.

It's what the World Health Organization is now recommending in its new guidelines. But as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Johannesburg, those guidelines pose some serious challenges.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: South Africa has roughly 5 and a half million people living with HIV. This is more than any other country in the world. South Africa also has more people on treatment than anywhere else.If the country ends up adopting the new World Health Organization recommendations, more than a million additional South Africans could be put on anti-retroviral therapy at public expense.

Joe Maila, the spokesman for the national Ministry of Health, says adopting these WHO recommendations would have huge implications on an already strained public health system.

JOE MAILA: We need to see how many people are going to be enrolled in to the program. We want to see how much money that will cost us - because this thing, it's lifelong. Therefore, we need to make decisions that are well-informed.

BEAUBIEN: The idea behind the new WHO guidelines is to treat HIV patients earlier in the course of the disease. The guidelines raise the threshold for treatment from a CD4 count of 350 up to 500. A higher CD4 count signifies a healthier immune system. The new treatment recommendations should mean that patients won't get extremely sick - at least, not for many years - and they'll be less likely to transmit the virus to others.

Gilles van Cutsem, the medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in South Africa, says the new WHO guidelines are a major step forward in HIV treatment. The country already has just over 2 million people on antiretroviral therapy, and van Cutsem says adding another million to the rolls will be a challenge for South Africa.

GILLES VAN CUTSEM: That is a massive undertaking. And we see already today that the South African public service is bursting at its seams.

BEAUBIEN: Recently, public health clinics in several parts of the country have completely run out of anti-AIDS drugs. These outages sometimes last only a few days; some patients say they've gone on for weeks.

The new WHO treatment guidelines are widely praised here, by physicians and activists, as a step forward. Dr. Francois Venter - with the University of Witwatersrand's Reproductive Health and HIV Institute - however, has been opposed to the new global guidelines.

DR. FRANCOIS VENTER: If we start people on treatment earlier, particularly with the older drugs - which are still used, particularly in Africa and Asia - the older drugs, which are more toxic, just means they have more time to develop the toxicities. And I think that's one of my biggest criticism with the guidelines - is to be absolutely clear that where these old drugs are used, they shouldn't initiate at this high threshold.

BEAUBIEN: He's also concerned that the longer patients are on these drugs, the more likely they are to develop resistance to the medicines. And finally, he's not convinced that the huge logistical and financial costs of starting treatment at a CD4 count of 500, instead of the current 350, outweigh the benefits.

VENTER: Most of the transmission seems to occur below 350. Almost all of the illness occurs below 350. You know, treating above 350, you're treating a very small problem.

BEAUBIEN: Sitting in an AIDS clinic at Johannesburg General Hospital, Venter says South Africa currently is struggling to consistently deliver anti-AIDS drugs to the 2.1 million people currently enrolled in the system. He calls the drug shortages the greatest threat, right now, to South Africa's HIV program.

VENTER: A clinic just across the road from here, patients took some of the nurses briefly hostage because they were so angry that they weren't getting their treatment. So they - kept being told, come back next week; we'll get it. And then they were being - a week at a time, a week at a time. ]>

BEAUBIEN: Joe Maila, with the Ministry of Health, says the drug stock-outs - as they call them in South Africa - are a limited problem. And he says it's due to poor management of the drug-supply chain rather than the country actually running out of these medicines. Maila says there's no set timeline for deciding whether South Africa will move to put hundreds of thousands of additional HIV patients on drug therapy. But he says the ministry is seriously considering it.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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