ZIMBABWE: Scepticism over govt plan to treble ARV beneficiaries

AIDS claims thousands in Zimbabwe every week
Bulawayo, 11 January 2007 (PlusNews) - The Zimbabwean government has announced its intention to treble the number of people on its free antiretroviral (ARV) programme in 2007, but experts are sceptical about the health sector's capacity to achieve this goal.

Continuing hyperinflation, now hovering around 1,200 percent annually, and a scarcity of foreign currency have crippled healthcare provision, creating shortages of drugs, medical equipment and even personnel, who have migrated in search of better salaries and living conditions.

Owen Mugurungi, National Coordinator of the government's HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis programme, this week told the media that government had pulled together resources that would be channelled into improving the lives of people living with the virus and increase access to the life-prolonging drugs.

"We hope that by end of 2007 about 160,000 people would have been enrolled under the ARV rollout programme, and we are working very hard to ensure that this happens," he said. Only 50,000 of an estimated 500,000 Zimbabweans in need of ARVs are receiving the drugs from state institutions.

AIDS activists were quick to question Mugurungi's targets, describing them as "empty and just too ambitious".

Dumisani Nkomo, deputy chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS, said he doubted the government's ability to treble the number of those accessing treatment.

"It is a welcome development to hear government make such a pledge, but it would appear just too ambitious to me. What they need to do is to go an extra mile, way beyond simple pledges and promises, and harness resources that would promote free or affordable distribution of ARVs.

"There are hundreds of thousands of infected people who die prematurely due to lack of access to drugs, and it is high time our government manoeuvred from its cocoon and faced reality; we need treatment as soon as possible," said the activist, who has lived with HIV for more than a decade.

A month's course of antiretroviral medication, which cost anywhere from US$200 to $400 (according to the official rate) on the parallel market in 2006, shot up by another US$100 in January 2007.

According to official statistics, the southern African country has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, with 18 percent of its 11.5 million people infected. Statistics show that about 3,500 people succumb to the disease every week, and health experts have attributed the large number of deaths to lack of treatment, which is extremely difficult to obtain in rural areas.

Anita Mhlanga, 25, an activist from rural Madlambuzi, a village in southern Zimbabwe, is living with the virus. She said the government has done little to improve the lives of those infected, especially in the countryside.

"At clinics they tell us there will be treatment programmes soon; they started saying so a long time ago, and now I am afraid I will die even before the programme starts because I can now feel I am terribly sick and weak. My child passed away two weeks ago and I know I am next. My boyfriend is also not feeling well ... if we had the ARVs that we hear people talk of, I think we would be better off and live longer. Government should work hard to make treatment accessible to all communities," said Mhlanga.

Zimbabwe started rolling out drugs at its Opportunistic Infection Clinics four years ago, but the programme has largely been confined to urban areas. The second city of Bulawayo has four of these clinics, which cater to 5,000 patients.

According to the authorities, most of the drugs the government wishes to roll out will be manufactured locally by the country's main supplier, Varichem, which requires at least US$1 million in scarce foreign exchange every month for importing raw materials to produce the life-prolonging medication.


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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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