‘This is violation of many rights in the Constitution… the right to equality… everybody has a right to free health care service, but because we are poor and do not have medical aid, I can’t access health care. They are further violating our right to life because, for the love of God, these ARVs are our life and without them we are dead’, Deputy Chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign in the Ekurhuleni district of Gauteng, Portia Serote, did not mix her words as she reminded the hundreds of TAC members of their basic rights as enshrined in the Constitution.
Angry TAC members marched to the office of the Gauteng Health MEC, Ntombi Mekgwe, this week, demanding an end to the drug shortage in health facilities. Health services in Gauteng have been dealt a severe blow due to drug stock outs which have been ongoing for months. The TAC says the last straw was the lack of vital treatment, such as the Tenofovir drug, one of the Anti-Retroviral Drugs (ARVs) for HIV-positive people. Serote says it is unacceptable that essential drugs are unavailable to patients.
‘For example, Tenofovir is a good drug that we, as the TAC, fought for, so everybody can access it for free. But what is happening in health facilities is that they do not stock enough. Others (patients) are switched with Stavudine’, she says.
Some of the messages written on posters by prostestors were loud and clear: ‘Provide treatment and do not gamble with our lives’.
Serote says patients have been constantly turned away from clinics and told to return on another date.
‘When they go to the clinics they are given treatment for two days. If you are working it becomes a problem because every two days you must ask for a day off, so you can go take your treatment. This problem is causing a high defaulter rate because people cannot afford to lose their jobs with the high unemployment rate we have. People are very worried. If they go every week to collect treatment it is a problem for their employers’, says Serote.
Floyd Motsamai was among those marching for his rights. He hasn’t received his ARVs for weeks. He says this has taken a toll on his health and body.
‘This is serious. We are defaulting… more especially with the treatment we have to take at night. Those are counted and they give you ten exactly. When they are finished we return to the clinic and the nurses tell us it is beyond their control. I so wish somebody can hear our cry for help for us infected with HIV.
We are dying and defaulting. If I don’t take this treatment I get dizzy and vomit. I don’t feel healthy and I have no energy, unlike when I do take them’, Motsamai says.
Other essential drugs that are out of stock include those for epilepsy and high blood pressure, as Sarah Nhlapo explains.
‘This is problematic. We have been without treatment for about two months now. I am epileptic. When we ask the nurses they tell us it is not their problem, it is beyond their control. When we ask for referral letters they refuse us. Why do they refuse us? What do they expect us to do? This has affected me badly as I have been having nose bleeds daily. We have a big problem in our clinic’, she says.
The Gauteng Department of Health says the stock has now been increased and distribution of essential drugs has resumed in all health facilities.
‘There has been an improvement. ARV availability in Gauteng has stabilised. The next phase is to make sure we have three months of stock holding – especially the fast moving drugs, including ARVs everywhere, so we are able to give people three months supply. In the past they have been getting one month of supply’.
Meanwhile, TAC National Chairperson, Nonkosi Khumalo, says if push comes to shove they will take the battle right into the office of the MEC for Health, Ntombi Mekgwe.
‘I think we need to go and sit in in her office like the good old days because it is not like there is no money. Money is there. One of these days they must expect us unannounced. We will have sit ins in her office and that day we will not go home until the medicine is in the clinics and enough to last patients months, so they do not keep coming back. And that is a promise’, says Khumalo.
The TAC has given the MEC 14 days to respond to their demands.