THE acute shortages of anti-retroviral drugs ((ARVs) at public health institutions is seriously compromising the health of more than half a million people living with HIV and Aids, forcing patients to switch to drug combinations which further endanger their lives.
Zimbabwe switched to Tenofovir, a new ARV regimen that has lesser side effects compared to Stalanev, which was being prescribed to all HIV patients following recommendations by the World Health Organisation.
However, since the introduction of the new ARVs, there has been a decline in the supply of drugs at all public health institutions resulting in patients being given one-week supplies or the old ARV drugs with serious side effects.
Sources at the National Pharmacy said the country still has plenty of the old drug Stalanev still being administered to patients due to shortages of Tenofovir. Patients have been forced to buy drugs from private pharmacies and a month’s supply costs US$50.
“Sometimes patients are given old drugs (Stalanev) when the new regimens are not in stock and this results in treatment complications,” said the source.
However, the national director of the HIV and Aids and Tuberculosis unit in the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, Owen Mugurungi, refuted allegations of ARV shortages.
“We had a shortage last month (August) and we bought drugs using our own money (Aids levy) to alleviate the problem,” said Mugurungi.
“We also approached the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to airlift 15 054 packs of anti-retroviral drugs in an effort to ease the drug shortages through the Global Fund,” he said.
Mugurungi said there are more than 630 000 people on HIV treatment and funds collected from the Aids levy are not enough to buy ARVs.
“We have partners because the policy is that 50% of the funds collected from the Aids levy are used to buy drugs but that falls far short of the needed drugs,” he said.
Zimbabwe HIV/Aids Activist Union vice-president Stanley Takaona said government has placed patients on “death penalty” by failing to provide the life- saving drugs.
“We are shocked because last week the National Pharmacy had only 400 units left on their shelves yet the ministry continues to claim drugs are available,” Takaona said.
“Government has failed to properly manage the Aids levy which is meant to procure these drugs. As an organisation, we are currently taking statistics on how many people have been affected countrywide. We cannot allow people to continue mixing drugs as this leads to drug resistance.”
National Aids Council (NAC) chief executive officer Tapuwa Magure denied that the country is experiencing ARV shortages but blamed “logistical problems” in the distribution processes of the drugs for the scarcity.
“We have the drugs but the problem is the distribution. We have been facing logistical problems resulting in the delay in delivering the drugs at the facilities,” Magure said.
Magure also said this year NAC would collect US$33 million through the Aids levy and only US$20 million will be used to buy the drugs while the remainder would be used for prevention, awareness campaigns and monitoring and evaluation.
UNDP sources said while the Ministry of Health approached the organisation for help, there have been challenges in shipping the drugs to meet the demand and government should play its role on procurement rather than blaming its partners.
“The first batch of 2 688 packs of drugs was delivered in October 2012 and another batch of 5 294 packs instead of the required 15 054 packs arrived on Monday,” a source said.
“Government should play its role in procuring the drugs because the UNDP is simply helping and cannot be blamed for the shortages.”
The source also revealed government has requested more second line drugs because a lot of patients are not responding to first line treatment due to complications caused by the mixing of drugs.
First line treatment is the entry point of administering ARVs while second line treatment refers to the group of patients that has become drug resistant to the initial treatment.
“Mixing of drugs leads to a patient becoming drug resistant which can be fatal,” said the source.