JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer will begin distributing the drug Diflucan on a free basis to HIV and AIDS patients at government hospitals and clinics within the next few weeks, the health department and Pfizer said Wednesday.

The department has removed a roadblock to the drug's distribution by approving Diflucan for the treatment of esophageal candidiasis, a fungal infection of the throat that occurs in up to 40 percent of AIDS patients.

The drug, generically known as Fluconazole, is already used in South Africa as a treatment for cryptococcal meningitis, an infection of the brain that occurs in 10 percent of AIDS patients.

The approval was ``a significant step forward in South Africa's battle against HIV/AIDS,'' Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in a joint statement with Pfizer.

The program will include distribution to patients suffering from the two opportunistic diseases, and will include patient and doctor education, a Pfizer spokesman said.

Patients will be given the drug for as long as they need it. When the program ends in December 2002, patients using Diflucan will continue to receive the medication for free, Pfizer said.

Up to 100,000 South Africans are thought to suffer from the two illnesses. The program is expected to cost Pfizer more than $48.5 million.