Zambia - A Zimbabwean pharmaceutical company said Tuesday it had started manufacturing generic anti-retroviral drugs for the millions of HIV and Aids sufferers in the southern African country.

Varichem Pharmaceuticals, based in Harare, said in a statement that it was probably the first generic company to produce ARVs in Africa.

The company is producing nine types of ARVs to be sold in Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest HIV and Aids prevalence rates in the world.

More than 3 000 Zimbabweans die of Aids per week and and the rate of infection is about 24,9 percent, according to official figures.

"All raw materials are imported from Europe and Asia," said a Varichem company official.

Around 70 percent of patients admitted to Zimbabwe's hospitals suffer from HIV and Aids-related illnesses while 33 percent of pregnant women in the country are infected with HIV, according to health experts.

Last year local media reported that morgues were unable to cope with the number of Aids victims, with the number of bodies exceeding their intake capacity more than threefold.

Early this year, government started administering free ARVs at selected government hospitals in a pilot project.

The local production of ARVs will result in a significant drop in the cost of the anti-Aids drugs for the millions infected.

Next week Zimbawe hosts its first-ever national Aids conference - to be addressed, among other speakers, by President Robert Mugabe and former president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda.