HARARE, ZIMABABWE - A top UNAIDS official is in Zimbabwe as the country faces a moderate shortage of the anti-retroviral drugs that stop the progress of the disease. The situation is bad for HIV-positive Zimbabweans, but worse for prisoners living with the virus who say they are struggling to get treatment for opportunistic infections.
Zimbabwe’s maximum security prison is overcrowded, officials say, and that is putting a strain on resources, including medicines for inmates who have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Chiedza Chiwashira is one the HIV-positive inmates. The 18-year-old says the shortage of ARVs is not a big problem, but the shortage of other drugs is.
“Even painkillers we do not have. So if those kids, children of inmates, fall sick there is nothing to give them. Officials are saying things are tough out there so there is nothing they can do. At least we have cotrimoxazole and other ARVs. But if we fall sick it will be a problem. We appeal to those at home or those who can help us with medical drugs and antibiotics as the prison hospital has just ARVs,” Chiwashira said.
Dr. Blessing Dhorobha, the head of the Chikurubi Maximum Prison hospital, says the National Pharmaceutical Company is keeping the facility supplied with ARV drugs for now, but acknowledges other drugs are a problem.
“In terms of other opportunistic infections; pneumonia, meningitis, we are in short supply of those drugs such anti-hypertensives, anti-diabetics,” he said. “We are normally supplied by NatPharm. If they do not have stocks, then they do not deliver.”
Shannon Hader, the deputy executive director of UNAIDS, said she came to Zimbabwe to see how it is helping vulnerable groups such as prison inmates and sex workers.
Hader says Zimbabwe has a good track record on AIDS, noting that the country introduced a tax to help patients, known as the AIDS levy, back in the 1990s.
However, “... what got us to this point in response won’t necessarily get us to the next level because what’s left to do might be more complicated than what we did first,” she said. “So I think Zimbabwe has the capacity to really accelerate, to meet the 2020 goals to be a model of the response. But that will take doubling in the next 18 months, and filling some of these gaps particularly with people that are often left behind.”
Raymond Yekeye, the head of Zimbabwe’s National AIDS Council, blames the shortage of medications on Zimbabwe’s chronic shortage of foreign currency.
“We do have the AIDS Levy and it is sufficient to cover the gap that we require. But we have not accessed the foreign currency that we require to import the medicines,” he said.
The lack of foreign currency has also made the country unable to import basic needs like food and fuel.
Earlier this week, the country’s health minister said Harare has begun receiving drugs from countries such as India, which donated drugs worth $250,000. That might ease the problem of shortages for prisoners with HIV, who can’t work to buy medicine on their own.