THAILAND: Refugees to get better access to HIV/AIDS drugs
BANGKOK , 4 September 2006 (PlusNews) - Thailand is considering making life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs available to refugees from Myanmar living with HIV/AIDS in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister, promised to look into the plight of refugees living with HIV/AIDS after an appeal from Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In an hour-long meeting with the premier last week, Guterres urged Thailand to include the refugees in its national programme to provide ARVs and initiatives for the prevention, care and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Guterres said that if refugees living with HIV/AIDS could be assured access to ARVs, it would bring "a major improvement in conditions" in the camps.
An estimated 140,000 refugees from Myanmar - mainly ethnic minority Karen and Karennis - have spent nearly a decade in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border after fleeing fighting between Myanmar's armed forces and armed ethnic militias.
HIV/AIDS prevalence rates among Mynamar refugees in the Thai camps are low. A recent survey of pregnant women in two of the camps - which have a combined population of 63,000 people - found HIV/AIDS prevalence rates of less than 0.3 percent among pregnant women; a far lower incidence of the virus than in pregnant women in nearby parts of Thailand.
Dr Ann Burton, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) senior regional HIV/AIDS coordinator in Asia, said the antenatal data from the two camps was "indicative" of a relatively low HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among Myanmar refugees living in the camps.
Thailand, with an estimated 600,000 of its own citizens living with HIV/Aids, has won international praise for its commitment to make ARVs available to all who need them.
More than 80,000 people receive the drugs, mainly cheap generic copies produced by the state-owned Government Pharmaceutical Organisation, through Thailand's national health care scheme. Within two years, an estimated 150,000 Thais will be receiving the medication.
However, refugees are not entitled to participate in the scheme or other state health systems. They rely on NGOs to provide basic health services.
Sixty-three refugees are receiving HIV/AIDS drugs but UNHCR has estimated that between 100 and 175 refugees who are yet to be diagnosed may need them.
"There is nobody [in the camps] who needs anti-retrovirals that doesn't have access to them," said Burton. “Some of them have formal ARV programmes established in the actual camps, while some would be referred to a Thai facility, and an NGO would have to pay for that."
But UNHCR believed the refugees should be integrated into Thailand's ARV scheme and HIV/AIDS programmes, rather than relying on the uncertain funding of NGOs to provide care.
"We want to see comprehensive HIV services available for refugees, which include prevention, care, treatment and support," Burton said. "We would like to see refugees, as with other marginalised groups, integrated into the national HIV programmes."