7 August 2003

Ethiopia: AIDS Centre Faces Closure Over Funding Problem

Addis Ababa — A pioneering AIDS research centre in Ethiopia is facing closure after the Dutch government withdrew its funding, scientists said on Thursday.

Dr Tshehaynesh Messele, who heads the Ethiopian-Netherlands Aids Research Project (ENARP), said unless they received new support they could be forced shut.

"I am really sad because we have everything in place," Dr Tshehaynesh, who has worked at the centre for the last nine years, told IRIN. "If it is closed then it is going to have enormous negative effects on AIDS research in Ethiopia."

Dr Tshehaynesh said uncertainty surrounding the future of the centre was prompting their highly trained staff - doctors, nurses and technicians - to leave for more secure work.

"This really is devastating for us," she added. "We want to give people contracts but we are unsure of the future."

The Dutch government will phase out funding by December 2003 because it wants to focus on poverty reduction, family planning and HIV prevention.

Beate Gerlings, from the Dutch ministry for development cooperation, told IRIN the Netherlands wanted to place greater emphasis on public health issues related to AIDS.

"The targets that we felt were most important were not reached," she told IRIN. "We felt there were better ways of spending our money to combat poverty in Ethiopia than supporting this programme."

She said the project was "too focused on its own research agenda rather than tackling the situation in hand".

The Dutch have been supporting the project - to the tune of US $13 million - since its start in 1994. In that time dozens of scientists have been trained in combating HIV/AIDS.

The project specialises in training, research into the virus and developing skills of medics to combat the deadly virus. It has also been studying trends of the virus in Ethiopia.

The centre was also involved in the pilot anti-retroviral drug-testing programme in Ethiopia, which started two weeks ago.

Scientists say it has also been at the forefront of the preparation for HIV vaccine trials and hosted the first international HIV vaccine conference in Ethiopia.

"The project has made a major contribution to understanding HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia," said Dr Tshehaynesh, who was one of the first postgraduates from the programme.

"We hope we will find partners," she added, "because we have the facilities and the expertise."

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