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 Saturday 15 December 2007
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GLOBAL: Asylum seekers struggle to access ARVs

Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN
The ban on free treatment could cost the government a lot more in the long term.
LONDON, 13 November 2007 (PlusNews) - Zimbabwean Lazarus Moyo is a 'failed' asylum seeker to the UK who got lucky. Diagnosed HIV positive a few years ago, he has been receiving free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment at a London clinic thanks to his involvement in a drug study programme.

But his luck could be about to turn: the two-year study has come to an end, and with it the money from the pharmaceutical firm that had been funding his treatment.

As an asylum seeker whose application has been refused, Moyo is not entitled to the free ARVs that are otherwise available to British citizens and recognised refugees. He is now on his last supply of drugs, and unless the clinic that has been treating him comes to the rescue, he will soon join the growing ranks of HIV-infected asylum seekers denied access to therapy.

"My biggest fear is that if my treatment is interrupted, the virus might develop a resistance to any drug combination that I may in future take," Moyo told PlusNews. "I just don't know what is going to happen."

Moyo's predicament mirrors that of several other failed asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, denied access to life-prolonging ARVs.

The restrictions have been condemned by AIDS activists and refugee welfare organisations, who have launched 'Destination Unknown', a campaign intended to force an early day motion in parliament to debate the issue, in the hope the government will be persuaded to relent.

"It is inhumane"

Max Sessay, director of the African HIV Policy Network, which is leading the campaign, told PlusNews: "We want everybody concerned to know that this piece of legislation has the effect of denying asylum seekers their right to life. It is inhumane."

Barry Evans, a member of the House of Commons is one of the most outspoken critics of the government's treatment of asylum seekers.

"The UK government is known for luring away doctors from poor African nations, and yet it denies HIV drugs to asylum seekers who live here," he remarked.

Evans sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on AIDS, a non-partisan group of members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords who are trying to
keep HIV/AIDS at the top of the government's agenda, that has also given its backing to the 'Destination Unknown' petition.

So far, 50 MPs have signed the petition for the early day motion, but a lot more signatures are needed before it can be tabled in the 635-seat House of Commons.

There are over 63,500 people living with HIV and AIDS in Britain. The most affected are gay white men, and Africans - who account for about 80 percent of all heterosexually-acquired HIV cases.

''Making HIV treatment freely available to everybody will help reduce the risk of serious opportunistic illnesses, and save millions in medical costs''
In the past few years, the government has tightened the eligibility criteria, making it all but impossible for overseas visitors and failed asylum seekers to obtain free ARVs. There are, however, no restrictions on treatment for other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea and syphilis.

The official reason given for withholding ARVs is that the HI virus can only be treated, not cured. But critics have noted the restrictions were imposed amid a media outcry over so-called 'health and benefits tourism' - suggesting migrants from the developing world were coming to the UK primarily for free health care and welfare benefits.

But even the Department of Health admits there is no evidence that asylum seekers are aware of their HIV status before travelling to the UK.

Experts suggest the ban on free treatment could cost the government a lot more in the long term. "A person denied treatment is more at risk of becoming seriously ill due to opportunistic diseases such as TB and cancer," said Sessay. "The bill for a six-month TB regimen [at a public hospital] can stack up."

He argues that making HIV treatment freely available to everybody will help reduce the risk of serious opportunistic illnesses, and save millions in medical costs.

Sessay is concerned that many failed asylum seekers who are HIV-positive are being forced to go underground rather than face deportation to their home country, where access to ARVs can be difficult.

He also fears the emergence of a community of HIV-positive people who cannot get treatment, which could have serious public health implications. Currently, failed asylum seekers have little incentive to take an HIV test because they know they will not get treatment in the event of a positive result.


Theme(s): (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


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