S.Africa Catholic church to provide AIDS drugs

South Africa's Catholic bishops said on Wednesday the church would start providing anti-AIDS drugs next week and criticised the government for its slow response to the epidemic.

South Africa has the world's highest number of HIV/AIDS cases, but only last year did the government agree under pressure to provide anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs at state hospitals. AIDS activists say even that plan is moving too slowly.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference said it would provide free ARV drugs at five church-run projects, and hoped to expand the programme to a further 19 projects when funding permitted it.

The conference, which groups bishops from South Africa, Swaziland and Botswana, ended its annual meeting with an appeal for the government to remove all bureaucratic obstacles to ARV access.

"The Catholic Church calls on the South African government to step up its response to AIDS in the country by delivering on its proposed anti-retroviral roll-out," the conference said in a news release.

An estimated 5.3 million of South Africa's 45 million people are infected with the disease but officials long resisted demands for ARV in the public sector, saying the drugs were too expensive, difficult to take and potentially toxic.

After the government bowed to pressure from medical experts and AIDS activists, the health ministry said as many as 50,000 people could begin receiving the drugs in 2004.

Officials respond to criticism about a slow roll-out of the drugs, saying they are battling capacity constraints.

"We don't believe that the roll-out should be stopped or blocked or put on the back burner because the capacity that civil society already has in place is under-utilised," Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg told a news conference.

The bishops said the Catholic Church was the largest provider of home-care for the sick, dying and AIDS orphans in South Africa and was ready to work with the government.

The bishops also called for a monthly basic income grant for South Africa's poor -- a step which the Treasury has said it is not keen to take.