- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

MBABANE, SWAZILAND (AP) - Swaziland’s government has run out of money to send its cancer patients to better equipped clinics and hospitals in neighboring South Africa, a government official said.

Swaziland is in an economic crisis linked to a drop in customs revenues amid a worldwide recession. Speaking to parliament earlier this week, Health Minister Benedict Xaba said the government’s Phalala Fund, used to pay for patients to be treated in South Africa, has been exhausted.

Health Department officials reached later said they could not give details on the fund’s finances and could not say how many people are affected.

Some patients have already been forced to suspend radiation and chemotherapy courses because money has run out for them, said Zanele Nkambule, secretary of the Cancer Association of Swaziland.

“Once radiation or chemotherapy is started the patient has to finish all the six or eight cycles,” she said. “If you break the cycle, when the disease recurs it will be more aggressive.”

Speaking on state radio Thursday, Xaba urged Swazis to visit doctors in the country.

“We do have doctors who determine whether patients have to be transferred or treated locally. But, in many cases patients want to be referred to South Africa,” Xaba said.

But Nomsa Msibi, president of the Cancer Association of Swaziland, said it is lack of facilities that was forcing Swazis “to go all the way to South Africa to get tested and treated.”

Msibi says all doctors can do in Swaziland is take samples _ even the specimens must go to South Africa to determine if there is cancer.

Msibi added because of lack of awareness and early testing, many Swazis only discover they are ill when their cancer has advanced and is more difficult to treat.

The U.S. State Department on its website says that medical facilities are limited and emergency medical capabilities, including ambulances, are almost nonexistent in Swaziland. It advises U.S. citizens to get care in neighboring countries for anything other than a minor procedure.

Swaziland’s AIDS patients also face limited treatments because of the country’s financial crisis. State hospitals have only two months’ supplies of AIDS drugs, Xaba told parliament Monday, also blaming the economic crisis.

More than 60,000 Swazis depend on anti-retroviral AIDS drugs, known as ARVs, distributed free at government hospitals.

Swaziland, with a population of about 1 million, has the world’s highest percentage of people living with the virus that causes AIDS. More than a quarter of Swazis between the ages of 15 and 49 are believe to carry HIV.

Swaziland is seeking international loans to cope with its budget crisis.

A pro-democracy movement in Swaziland, southern Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has gained some ground since the government’s budget problems first emerged in March. But the government has cracked down hard on protests, and reformists have had to contend with reverence for the monarchy among many Swazis.

Activists have criticized King Mswati III for living lavishly while most Swazis live in poverty. He also is accused of harassing and jailing pro-democracy activists.

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