Drug deficits threaten HIV patients

Global recession worsens shortage of anti-retrovirals for Africans living with HIV/Aids.


    Municipal health officials in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, are struggling to cope with growing waiting lists of people in need of HIV treatment and too few doctors to prescribe the drugs.

    More than 320,000 Zimbabweans are in need of anti-retroviral (ARV) drug treatment and of the 1.7 million living with HIV, only about 150,000 are receiving medication from the public health sector.

    Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa reports on Zimbabwean migrant workers who cannot access ARVs in South Africa and are forced to return to Bulawayo clinics for treatment.

    A drop in levels of funding and interruption in the supply of ARV drugs have led to the delay, suspension, or risk of suspension of the supply of life-saving HIV drugs.

    This disruption, says Medicin Sans Frontieres (MSF), is putting HIV patients at risk in at least six African countries.

    According to 2008 UN statistics, just under two million people were living with HIV/Aids in Zimbabwe and the prevalence rate for the 15 to 49 age bracket is 15.3 per cent.

    Harare received close to $40m from the Global Fund earlier this year – money that will go a long way to combating the epidemic if it is managed properly by officials, say aid groups in the country.

    With the unity government just over six months old, donor money is slowly trickling back into Zimbabwe's bankrupt economy.

    But it is not enough. Just like in other parts of Africa, and the world, the global recession has cut into monies usually earmarked for aid and relief.

    In Zimbabwe, ARV stocks have already become dangerously low in many public health facilities in the country.

    Waiting for death

    With hospitals full to capacity many patients wait all day to receive medical treatment
    Bulawayo's Khami Hospital is full of patients scrambling to find somewhere to sit.

    With just one doctor on duty, most of the 350 patients will probably have to wait all day to finally receive treatment.

    Some walked an hour to get here; others travelled by bus from the nearby rural areas where clinics barely have sufficient headache tablets, let alone ARVs.

    Sihle Dube, 32, is HIV positive and believes her husband, who left her for another woman three years ago, is the one who infected her.

    She is unemployed and has a 10-year-old son to look after.

    To do, that she needs to start taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), but the public hospital does not have enough in stock.

    Sihle says she has been on a government waiting list for ARVs for nine months.

    "All I can think of, while I wait to get my drugs, is death," she says, "I've been waiting since December for ARVs – and I have no idea when I will get them. I can't afford to buy them."

    Sihle sighs as she realises how far down the line she is. She sighs again when nurses announce they are "going out for lunch".

    "Looks like I will be here all day or have to come back again tomorrow," she says, frustrated.



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    The only way to avoid the long waiting lists and the hospital lines in Zimbabwe is to buy your own ARVs at a private pharmacy. But its is a luxury few can afford.

    But an estimated 90 per cent of the population is unemployed and a monthly dose of tablets costs around $23.

    The price can double depending on which part of the country one lives.

    Health officials estimate more than 320,000 people in Zimbabwe need ARVs, but less than half are getting them.

    MSF says more than 400 people die every day from Aids-related causes.

    "As you know, we can't cure HIV, we can only control it," explains Dr Brigitte van Hove from MSF.

    "That's what ARVs do. They try to control it - try to stop the multiplication as much as possible. They allow a body which is immune depressed to get better and allow people to look after themselves with their families."

    Ailing health sector

    Zimbabwe health officials say they are trying to find solutions but the health sector is in tatters and reviving it is going to take a lot of work and money.

    Disgruntled medical practitioners, who get paid just $170 a month, are always threatening to go on strike.

    Drugs are always in short supply and hospital equipment is inadequate.

    The coalition government of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, and his prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai says it desperately needs close to $10bn to resuscitate the economy, which had been brought to a standstill by years of mismanagement and bad policies before the coalition government was formed in February this year.

    Officials hope most of this money will come from Western nations and donors.

    But international donors have been reluctant to pour money into the African nation until more political and economic reforms are made on the ground.

    This, coupled with the recession, means there is not enough funding to properly deal with HIV/Aids.

    If the money to supply drugs keeps dwindling, many across Africa will continue to die from a disease that can be contained for less than $25 a month.

    Dangerous alternatives

    But some in Zimbabwe have resorted to alternative treatment.

    In the poor township of Mkokoba in Bulawayo, close to 200 people sit under a tree waiting for faith healer Mkululi Moyo, who says he can heal anything from cancer to HIV/Aids, to arrive.

    Some come from the capital Harare about 500km away while others come from as far as neighbouring South Africa, desperate to see the faith healer.

    As Moyo finally arrives, people rush toward him. He splits them into two groups – those who are sick on his left and those who have financial problems, for example, on the right.

    Two long snake-like queues are formed as people line up to fill their bottles with holy water brought by their faith healer.

    When their bottles are filled they sit down and wait for instructions.

    The faith healer tells them to write their problems on a piece of paper and put the paper in the bottle of "holy water".

    Then they must shake the bottle hard to completely douse their problems with the blessed water.

    Next, they are told to form another line and, one by one, they smash their bottles – the only way to chase out the evil demons that are making them sick.

    "A person comes here to receive Jesus as their personal saviour," explains Moyo.

    "I give them water filled with the Holy Spirit. Whatever illness they have – be it cancer, even Aids - I tell them Jesus has the power to heal and for real they are healed."

    With Aids drugs in short supply and too expensive – the desperate are clutching onto anything that can restore their health and keep them alive.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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