More than two million free doses of the anti-fungal Diflucan used to treat AIDS related fungal infections have been dispensed in South Africa during a groundbreaking two-year partnership between government and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, manufacturer of the drug.

Another spin-off of the initiative is that more than 10 000 health care professionals have been trained under the project and in mid-November Pfizer announced that the programme would be extended in South Africa with “no dollar or time limit.”

The Diflucan Partnership programme is the only one of its kind in South Africa and a remarkable one given the government’s history of scepticism with regard to accepting drug donations. The reason for this says Advocate Patricia Lambert, legal advisor to the Minister of Health and chairperson of the Diflucan Partnership working group, is because it is not sustainable to plan or run a country’s health sector on donations which could dry up or that are based on time frames.

“It was with some trepidation that in the year 2000 we began to negotiate how this particular partnership programme would work around the lines of a donation programme. What I have been able to see is that those things that made us nervous and wary of one another and of how we would manage this process have been solved, we have moved with the speed that is unusual, and that is to be welcomed,” said Ms Lambert.

The aim of the Diflucan partnership programme is to provide the drug free of charge to government which in turn makes it available to people living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa and who rely on the country’s public health facilities.

Diflucan is an anti-fungal drug used to treat most common infections associated with diseases like cryptococcal meningitis and oesophageal candidiasis. These infections affect up to 40 percent of all infected people.

“Diflucan will be available for as long as South African patients require it. Through this gesture, we hope that we are able to make people’s lives better, that we are bale to prolong their quality of life and that we are able to continue to build capacity in our health care workers who care for patients every day,” said Ms Lambert.

Mr John Kearney, Chief Executive Officer of Pfizer, South Africa, said that to date, 317 health centres were administering the drug to their clients, and 10 000 workers have been trained in that regard.

Mr Kearney added that patients were aware that Diflucan is not an anti-retroviral and is used to manage opportunistic infections.

The Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said the extension of the agreement had enabled government to include South Africa’s rural areas as part of the programme.

She added that the success of the initiative had inspired the introduction of similar programmes in nine other African countries. In South Africa, the value of the donation is estimated to be in the region of R40-million.

The timing of the announcement of the renewed partnership is fitting, considering that in two weeks, the world will once again be paying tribute to the millions around the globe who have died of AIDS, and just as importantly to the millions who live infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.