Government needs to take the theft of anti-retroviral drugs or ARVs seriously as people’s lives are at risk. This is according to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the National Association of People Living with AIDS (NAPWA). They say reports in the media of ARVs found on the black market are quite disturbing. As a result, many HIV-positive people are now afraid to go fetch their treatment from public health facilities for fear of being victims of people stealing their medicine.
‘There are a number of people right now coming to us who have told us that they are scared to go to public healthcare facilities to get ARVs because they might be hijacked or robbed. Just last week in Hillbrow, a woman was mugged by a gang and they took her ARVs. This means it will have a huge impact on people living with HIV. In the long run they will default on treatment and develop drug resistance. Now, that is lethal. But, the main major impact is that the government’s treatment programme will fall flat’, says NAPWA’s Secretary-General, Nkululeko Nxesi.
In a recent incident three men were arrested for allegedly being in possession of ARVs to the value of R200 000. It is still unclear as to where the drugs were being taken to and what were they going to be used for. However, police have not ruled out the possibility that the drugs were going to be used and sold for whoonga.
Whoonga is a drug that has become a growing concern in the country. It is a detergent powder mixed with rat poison and crushed-up ARVs, then smoked. Nxesi says Napwa’s concern is that people are getting away with stealing crucial treatment of AIDS patients to make a quick buck.
‘Government will respond very late. That is our worry. At that time how many people would have died? And how many people would have become millionaires by selling ARVs? Our call to government is that they should not use the lab experts who investigate the ingredients of whoonga. They must go where people are. Since they believe it is not true that ARVs are used for whoonga, then why was that woman in Hillbrow mugged? What about those policemen who stole ARVs… why did they do that? Who is their supplier and who is their market?’ asks Nxesi
The Treatment Action Campaign has also added its voice to the matter. Last week, the TAC held a picket outside the Kempton Park Magistrates’ Court where the three men accused of stealing ARVs appeared.
‘We are very worried because we know our history and how far we’ve come for people to access ARVs. People who are HIV-positive are very angry and scared because this treatment is our life. Once you start it, you take it till death. It is like you are married to it because you take it with you everywhere you go. We are worried because if people are stealing our treatment, how can we live without them as it is a life time commitment?’ said Portia Serote, deputy chairperson of the TAC in Ekhuruleni.
Meanwhile, the Gauteng Health Department says it has strict security measures in place at all of their public health pharmacies to ensure that theft of medicines is minimal. Policy Specialist at the department, Rose Mashile, says when the stock arrives at their hospitals it is thoroughly checked. Mashile says access inside the pharmacies is also controlled.
‘Only pharmacy personnel are allowed into the pharmacy. You can’t go in. Even if you are working in the hospital, you will not be allowed. There are electronic controlled systems in most of our pharmacies, like swiping cards and using the finger print system. This is to protect the staff in the pharmacy. Even at dispatch, only one person is served at a time for confidentiality and security’.
But what confidentiality and security do patients really have when they are easy prey for criminals who want their antiretroviral medicines once they leave the health facilities? Meanwhile, the TAC and NAPWA say they have begun encouraging people to collect treatment in groups for safety, and to get family members to accompany them where possible.