Papua New Guinea’s critical HIV drugs shortage sparks warning that people may die

PORT MORESBY, 23 APRIL 2018 (ABC) – Papua New Guineans living with HIV may die if critical anti-retroviral drugs used to treat the virus are not restocked soon, a member of the local HIV advocacy body has warned.

The number of available drugs has fallen to low levels, and the country’s medical facilities have begun eating into what is known as its buffer stock.

“Everyone who’s on treatment will be affected and people may die,” HIV patient Maura Elaripe, who is also a member of advocacy group Igat Hope, told the ABC’s Pacific Beat programme.

Elaripe is one of about 44,000 people estimated to be living with HIV in PNG and sits on the board of The Global Fund, which coordinates donor funding to treat HIV and Tuberculosis.

She was diagnosed with HIV in 1997 and has been receiving the therapy in some form since late 2002.

The medical treatment is known as Anti-Retroviral Therapy or ART and works by suppressing the “viral load” of HIV in the body, stopping person-to-person transmission and preventing the virus from progressing to AIDS.

“We’re talking about quite a serious situation … where we are now currently eating into our three- to six-month buffer stock of anti-retroviral treatment,” said David Bridger, the head of UNAIDS in PNG.

PNG Health Secretary Pascoe Kase said in a statement released to local media that stocks around the country were limited, but it added that the Health Department was maintaining close contact with donor partners to be able to have stocks delivered into the country with less than two months’ notice.

The ABC made repeated attempts to clarify with the PNG Government how much stock is left in the country, when the new treatments will arrive, and whether the order has been paid for.

No interview or statement has been provided by the Health Department, Health Secretary or National AIDS Council.

Elaripe said from her networks in the country, it appeared there was about one month’s worth of ART supplies left.

“For me, anti-retrovirals are the drug that keeps me going … so I can continue living my normal life,” she said.

The 2018 budget, handed down in November, allocated K3.6 million (US$1.11 million) to HIV/AIDS treatment drugs, down from K8 million (US$1.5 million) in 2017.

The country’s HIV/AIDS programme had already been slashed to K5.1 million (US$1.5million) allocated for 2018, from K18.2 million (US$5.6 million) in the previous budget.

For the next two years, the forecast for the programme is completely empty.

Medical organisations and advocacy groups like Igat Hope estimate they need about K15 million (US$4.6million) each year to fund treatment.

“So, the problem really is that we don’t have enough funds to purchase drugs,” Elaripe said.

PNG has disproportionately high rates of HIV for the region, with about 95 per cent of the entire HIV cases in the Pacific. In 2016, AIDS-related illnesses killed 1,100 people.

UNAIDS says about 22,000 people are currently receiving ART, but The Global Fund says it’s closer to 24,000 people.

The risks of ART stopping include drug resistance, viral rebound, increased risk of HIV transmission, and a reduction of the amount of infection-stopping white blood cells in the system.

Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that despite recent progress with tackling the virus, the emergence and spread of HIV drug resistance posed a serious concern.

A spokesperson from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said that Australia continues to fund HIV/AIDS treatment programs in PNG, and supported NGOs to deliver treatment to about 10,000 people living with HIV.

In 2017, the Government was working on a new National HIV Strategy, and WHO documents from that time indicate the Government was planning to scale up testing and treatment.

“We have partners telling us to go out, reach people, test them,” Elaripe said.

“And then what? How do we put them on treatment?” said Elaripe.

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