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PFIZER expands free drug program to 50 poor countries


UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ The U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. announced Wednesday it will expand its free distribution of a drug for AIDS patients in 50 of the world's least developed countries.

The drug, Diflucan, is already being distributed free in South Africa as a treatment for cryptococcal meningitis, an infection of the brain that occurs in 10 percent of AIDS patients. It also treats esophageal candidiasis, a fungal infection of the esophagus reported in 20-40 percent of patients with HIV-AIDS.

Dr. Henry McKinnell, Pfizer's chairman and CEO, said free distribution of the drug, generically known as Fluconazole, will begin as quickly as possible.

``We will support this initiative for as long as it is needed, and we will continue to work with the U.N., the World Health Organization and other international organizations on how public-private partnerships like the Diflucan program can be most effective,'' he told a news conference to launch the initiative.

The drug is currently being shipped to South Africa and distributed in 185 clinics there. In the United States, the drug costs $10 per dose and those suffering from cryptococcal meningitis may need a lifelong daily regimen. AIDS patients with this form of meningitis are usually believed to have a few years to live.

Pfizer believes some 12 million people are infected with HIV in the areas where the drug will be available. But with almost no statistics on the two diseases treated with Diflucan in those regions, the company said it has yet to estimate the cost of the overall program.

Pfizer says the program in South Africa will cost the company about $50 million over the next two years.

McKinnell's announcement was welcomed by representatives from several African nations that will receive the free drug, including Namibia, Malawi, Botswana and Lesotho.

In South Africa, 11 percent of the population is infected with HIV and in Botswana the figure is 19 percent.

The Pfizer announcement came just weeks before the U.N. General Assembly's special session on HIV/AIDS which is expected to adopt a global action plan to combat the epidemic. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for an annual fund of $7 billion to $10 billion to fight the disease.

AIDS drugs manufacturers were attacked by Third World countries hit by the AIDS pandemic, especially in sub-Sahara Africa _ home to more than 70 percent of the people with HIV _ for refusing to provide free medication to help impoverished patients.

Wednesday's announcement was welcomed by Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS.

``We look forward to this new program being implemented as swiftly and broadly as possible and to its significant impact in the treatment of fungal brain infections and esophageal candidiasis, which are common among AIDS patients.''

Symptoms associated with cryptococcal meningitis include fever, weight loss, vomiting and blurred vision. Diflucan is the only available outpatient treatment. Pfizer said it would provide the drug free for as long as a patient in the program area needed it.

The drug is also highly effective in treating esophageal candidiasis. Symptoms include chest pain, vomiting and bleeding. The standard treatment regimen ranges from 5 to 14 days and could prevent relapse.

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