SOUTH AFRICA: HIV-positive inmates hungry for ARVs
Some 242 inmates embarked on a hunger strike early on Monday
Johannesburg, 28 March 2006 (IRIN) - HIV-positive prisoners are literally starving for antiretroviral (ARV) drugs at South Africa's Westville Prison, in the east coast city of Durban.
Some 242 inmates embarked on a hunger strike early on Monday, citing a failure by the department of correctional services and the health ministry to provide them with the life-prolonging drugs.
Mark Heywood, director of the Johannesburg-based AIDS Law Project (ALP), told PlusNews that his organisation had been trying for the past five months to obtain ARVs for 15 inmates in urgent need of the medication.
"It has been a painful and slow exercise in convincing correctional services of the urgency of this treatment. These prisoners are really on the verge of dying if they do not gain access to these drugs," he stressed.
According to Heywood, officials at the jail had said the primary reason for the delay was that the prisoners did not have the required identity documents.
"But this is just a weightless excuse that will ultimately serve as a death sentence for these inmates, be it through starvation, or through the lack of anti-AIDS drugs," he said, pointing out that that a person had to be identified in order to be imprisoned.
Xolani Ncemu, a prisoner who chairs the HIV/AIDS support group at Westville, told the local media that the strike was a last resort after months of negotiations with the authorities to resolve the bureaucratic obstacles preventing inmates from receiving treatment.
The director of HIV/AIDS for correctional services, Gustav Wilson, described the process of providing treatment as "a challenge", and noted that driving inmates to rollout sites at public health facilities for ongoing CD4-count testing and drug provision created logistical and staffing problems.
At present, Grootvlei prison, outside Bloemfontein in the Free State province, has the only accredited ARV rollout site in operation at a jail.
Heywood said this was not enough. "Both the ministers of correctional services and health need to meet urgently to address the problem, not just in Westville prison, but at correctional facilities throughout the country."
ALP is in the late stages of bringing legal action against the government for failing to treat the prisoners, and has recommended that the department of correctional services step up its security efforts to ensure access to ARVs for inmates at public rollout sites.
"It is the legal responsibility of correctional services to make this treatment available," Heywood commented. "This is a reality which cannot be escaped."