BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo -- Clinics in Republic of Congo's capital will provide free HIV treatment to pregnant women starting Monday, part of an effort to block mother-to-child transmission in one of the African countries hardest-hit by AIDS.
The West African nation of Ghana, meanwhile, said it is in negotiations in partnership with the World Health Organization to start manufacturing HIV drugs directly.
Both steps are rare in sub-Saharan Africa, where dying with little or no Western medical treatment is the norm for the millions of people infected with AIDS.
War-scarred Republic of Congo in central Africa counts itself among the worst-off, with a 7 percent infection rate among its population of 2.8 million. Women here suffer a higher infection rate than men. Republic of Congo health workers say rapes during the civil strife of the 1990s are in part to blame.
"Our job in convincing expectant women to take a test before their delivery is making clear that today there's a different outlook for the disease: that is to say, it's one you can live with," said Gertrude Kani, who heads one of the private groups working with the government in the My Child Will Live campaign.
Starting Monday, two clinics in Brazzaville will provide the drug nevirapine free of charge to pregnant women who test positive for HIV, project organizers said. Nevirapine blocks transmission of the HIV virus during delivery.
The drug is being provided by the German firm Boehringer-Ingelheim, which also is taking part in a similar pilot project in South Africa, where lobbying for widespread, free distribution of nevirapine has been intense.
The Brazzaville project is part of a larger campaign nationwide meant to educate women on the risk of transmitting HIV to their children and steps to prevent it.
Organizers will also encourage women to submit to tests to find out if they are HIV-positive - a difficult task in a part of the world where testing positive is often seen as a death sentence.
Petronelle Mongha said she is suffering from a "psychological shock" even though she tested negative in 2000.
"If I was asked to take a test again, I would prefer to die with my baby in my belly," she said.
In Ghana, meanwhile, Health Minister Richard Anane announced this week that the government is working toward starting local manufacture of HIV drugs next year by importing the formula from Thailand and the raw materials from another country, most likely South Korea.
Ghana, where an estimated 4 percent of adults carry the virus that causes AIDS, also is pursuing a separate deal to import nevirapine and other HIV drugs at low cost, Anane said.
A number of sub-Saharan nations have signed low-cost HIV pacts with major Western drug companies in recent months.
The big drug-makers in part are hoping to stave off competition from lower-price, generic drugs, such as those produced by the Indian firm Cipla.
Last year, the Glaxo pharmaceutical company accused Cipla of violating Glaxo's patent in Ghana by seeking to sell cut-rate drugs there - only to later concede it held no valid patent in Ghana.