Ukraine faces looming HIV treatment shortage
A group of Ukrainians infected with HIV warned on Wednesday that thousands could soon perish because the war-torn country was running out of treatment for the virus responsible for AIDS.
The activists staged a poignant protest in which they marked out territory for a symbolic cemetery outside the government building in central Kiev.
“We are calling on the prime minister and the government of Ukraine to avert this catastrophe,” protest coordinator Volodymyr Zhovtyak said in a statement.
“After all, medication being used by 30,000 HIV-positive people will run out in three weeks,” he wrote.
Activists link the problem to a law adopted last year allowing drug suppliers to receive full prepayment for medication they would not be required to deliver for up to six months.
The government’s controversial decision was prompted by a technicality requiring money earmarked in the federal budget for specific programmes to be disbursed by the end of the fiscal year.
The Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS said the change meant medication that was supposed to be delivered by the end of 2014 may not reach the ex-Soviet country’s poorly-stocked clinics until June 10.
Health Minister Alexander Kvitashvili told a cabinet meeting he was aware of the problem and was working with international humanitarian organisations to avert an all-out crisis.
“We have supplies through the end of June,” said Kvitashvili. “The deadline for (drug) companies’ deliveries is June 19.”
– Worst epidemic in Europe –
The World Health Organization believes Ukraine is currently suffering from the worst HIV epidemic in Europe.
It reported 230,000 HIV-positive cases among Ukrainians 15 or older — about 0.8 percent of that age group.
Ukraine’s own statistics show 124,000 HIV-positive people registered for treatment with the government as of April 1. Health authorities identified 4,563 new cases in the first four months of the year.
Health officials fear the situation may only grow worse because transmission of the disease has crossed from the gay community and intravenous drug users to predominantly affect the general public.
The World Health Organization attributes 57 percent of last year’s HIV infections to unprotected sex. Drug use was responsible for just a quarter of the cases — a relatively low number indicating the virus was spreading.
Some experts said the fate facing those infected was as dire as the activists claimed.
“This is not just a risk — this is a fact of life,” said Pavlo Skala of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance health safety group.
“We could see thousands of people lose access to treatment,” Skala warned. “And all the responsibility rests on the health ministry.”
Health chief Kvitashvili in turn blamed the looming HIV treatment shortage on Ukraine’s main supplier — a private company that he failed to publically name.
“Although the drugs can be prepared (for distribution) within 10 days, the firm that signed the health ministry contract is refusing to get in touch with us,” Kvitashvili said.