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Nigeria Doctors’ Strike Threatens HIV/AIDS Care

Nearly a month into a nationwide doctor's strike, HIV/AIDS patients in some parts of northern Nigeria say health care is rapidly declining, and they have become largely dependent upon foreign aid organizations. Doctors say the strike is the only way they know to rescue Nigeria’s flailing healthcare system, but nurses accuse strikers of abandoning public care in favor of more lucrative private practices.

The Nigerian Medical Association said about 30,000 members have been on strike since the beginning of July, breaking the strike only to provide emergency care for victims of frequent insurgent attacks.

But HIV patients say they need life-saving care just as much as victims of terrorism.

Benjamin Daniel leads a network of people living with HIV or AIDS in the northern city of Kaduna. He said some HIV/AIDS patients have already been turned away from emergency care and as the strike drags on, more people are getting sick.

“This doctors’ strike actually affected lives of people living with HIV and AIDS in Kaduna State and if the government doesn’t do anything about it, definitely, I’m telling you, we don’t know the fate of our people,” said Daniel.

In Kaduna Wednesday, doctors broke their strike to treat injured victims of a double bombing that killed 44 people. When those patients were stable, they left.

Nigeria’s official HIV infection rate is more than four percent and some doctors say that rate is grossly underestimated.

But HIV/AIDS drugs are still available, said the executive secretary of Kaduna State AIDS Control Agency, Halliru Musa Abubakar, because they don’t need doctors to distribute medicine.

“We are trying as much as possible to see that the strike doesn’t effect negatively the patient access to the drugs. So, so far we have not had any problem in the state,” he noted.

While strikes are common tools for negotiation in Nigeria, this is the first time the Nigerian Medical Association has called a nationwide strike, union officials say. The strike will continue, they add, until the government provides more resources to hospitals.

Union members say without these resources the Nigerian hospital system will collapse in a matter of years.

The National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives has called the strike “selfish,” saying doctors are trying divert patients into their own expensive private clinics.

Andy Bako is a local coordinator of the Association of Vulnerable Children in Nigeria. He blames the government for the strike, saying its refusal to negotiate with doctors puts everyone at risk.

“For children that fall sick from time to time certainly they don’t access treatment. Because they go to the conventional hospitals to receive treatment. There’s no doctors. It’s really affecting them,” said Bako.

Bako said HIV/AIDS patients still have a modicum of care because foreign aid organizations are still operating. However, he said, dependency on groups that could potentially leave Nigeria because of the growing Boko Haram insurgency is as dangerous as it is frightening.

Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report from Kaduna.