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Shortage of AIDS Drugs in Kenya Endangers Lives - 2002-04-16

In Kenya, shortages of discounted AIDS drugs are endangering the lives of HIV/AIDS patients. Patients are being forced to switch to alternate medications or interrupt their treatment altogether. Some of Kenya's largest health centers regularly find it takes more than two months to get vital supplies of anti-retroviral drugs, according to the Kenya Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines.

Anti-retroviral drugs help prolong the lives of people infected with AIDS or the HIV virus that causes AIDS. The most serious shortages occur with Videx and Zerit tablets, produced by Bristol-Myers-Squibb.

Doctor John Wasongo, of Nairobi's Mbagathi Hospital, says this is playing havoc with treatment of HIV/AIDS patients.

"One major problem I have experienced in my HIV clinic is that a majority of the patients, after I have given them the prescription, come back to me again and say that some of the drugs that are prescribed are not in the market. And therefore the pharmacists in the hospital where they've gone to collect the drugs either want them to change to another one or to take a different dose of the one that is available."

Many patients are unable to afford the alternatives offered and are forced to go without medication for several weeks. Without treatment, their health can rapidly deteriorate.

Others decide to take the wrong dosages, for example a 40 mg. tablet instead of the 30 mg. prescribed. These extra toxins in the body worsen the painful side effects caused by the drugs.

Some patients can afford to switch to another anti-retroviral drug which is more readily available. But this choice is also risky. Doctor Wasongo says these patients will have a higher chance of developing drug-resistant strains of HIV, reducing their future therapy options.

Liza Kimbo, of the Kenya Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines, says the problem of drug shortages started last year, when the five major drug companies lowered the prices of their AIDS drugs for Africa.

"It's the big five. It's the companies that have provided these drugs at the beneficial prices are the ones that are then affected with the shortages. We also do not find similar pattern with all the other drugs that they supply, begging the question: Why is it that these particular drugs which have been promised to us at reduced prices are the ones that are suffering shortages but not the other drugs?"

Ms Kimbo says the Kenyan Government should end the branded drug companies' monopoly of supply. If generic versions of anti-retroviral drugs were available in Kenya, she believes the big five would ensure that stocks of their drugs did not run out.