Activists press govt to provide free ARVs

Activist pressure is mounting on the Nigerian government to provide free HIV/AIDS treatment and care.

The government offers subsidised antiretroviral (ARV) medication for 1,000 Naira (US $7), but HIV-positive patients also spend an estimated 42,000 Naira ($320) annually on regular laboratory tests, treating opportunistic infections and transport to health centres.

At the country's first HIV/AIDS Treatment Summit, held recently in the capital, Abuja, activists called for ARVs, diagnosis, laboratory monitoring, management of opportunistic infections and nutritional support for HIV-positive people to be provided free of charge.

The conference was organised by the Treatment Action Movement (TAM), a Nigerian civil society group advocating access to care and treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other related infectious diseases.

The group is expected to meet again this week in Abuja to press for free treatment, which it insists should be granted if the government is really committed to its anti-HIV/AIDS campaign.

"Our request has to be granted in view of the looming calamity, which we face due to lack of access of many PLWH [people living with HIV/AIDS] to treatment in the country," Rolake Odetoyinbo Nwagwu, TAM's national coordinator, told PlusNews.

According to Nwagwu, the Nigerian government could afford to offer free treatment if it really wanted to.

Money from the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was meant for the free provision of treatment. But the government intervened, not wanting to create a disparity between those who would receive free anti-AIDS drugs, and those already getting the federal government's ARV drugs at $7 per month.

Nigeria set a goal of providing subsidised treatment to 100,000 people by 2005, but scaled this up to a target of 250,000 by mid-2006, using more than US $300 million provided by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank and PEPFAR.

"[Funds from the] Global Fund used for purchasing the drugs are a grant - not a loan - so we don't understand why PLWH's have to pay for the drugs. If people can't afford the drugs regularly, we run the risk of drug resistance that may be more difficult to cope with," Nwagwu warned.

In May a coalition of AIDS NGOs petitioned President Olusegun Obasanjo, demanding completely free access to the life-prolonging medication, as most HIV-positive people found the cost of treatment prohibitive.

"If people living with HIV have to pay for their treatment, they will have to sell their property and cut down on education, food and other essential needs to be able to afford it," the petition pointed out.

The coalition said HIV-patients had been forced to interrupt their drug regimes or cut down on the number of laboratory tests required for treatment because of the costs.

In June the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWAN) addressed a press conference in the country's largest city, Lagos, at which it called on the federal government to scrap the ARV fee.

The government has yet to respond to these demands, but had previously said that by implementing a policy of charging what it considered minimal fees, it hoped to raise funds to help sustain the scheme when international donor funding dried up.