Sentenced to Death: Prisoners Denied AIDS Drugs in Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwe government and NGOs have been condemned for failing to provide anti-viral therapy (ARVs) to prisoners living with HIV/AIDS despite getting billions of dollars from the United Nations Global Fund for the purpose.
Vocal activist group Positive Vibrations, which caters for HIV-positive people and those living with AIDS, confirmed that most people on anti-retroviral treatment (ART) have their supplies disrupted when they go to prison while some do not disclose their status for fear of victimization by prison officials and fellow prisoners.
In fact, for people living with AIDS, even a brief stint in jail amounts to a death sentence, said the activists in a damning report to coincide with the United Nations International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (Icasa), hosted by Zimbabwe from 29 November to 4 December 2015.
“The situation in prisons is totally appalling. There are no AIDS drugs at most prison hospitals, which are not even registered to administer ART. In fact, most prison hospital staff are not trained or registered to administer the program and the attitude of the prison officers is that prisoners are criminals and, therefore, have no rights. It’s as if the government is sending people to die,” said Valerie Sibanda, a spokeswoman for Positive Vibrations.
The government has failed to explain why it cannot provide ARVs in all prisons as the country’s entire supply is donated by the UN. A report by parliament’s thematic committee on HIV/AIDS said Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services only provided ARVs at Harare Central and Khami prisons but even those were poorly supplied.
“Chikurubi prison was observed to have the worst drug situation,” said a parliamentary report. “Antibiotics were said to be in short supply, except cotrimoxizole. The Committee observed that the pharmacy was stocked with mostly paracetamol and cotrimoxizole. Some of the drugs on the shelves had expired or were about to expire. Prison authorities reported that they had never experienced ARV and TB drug stock outs, but had experienced low stocks in drugs for treatment of opportunistic infections. Chikurubi Prison officials reported that there was a severe shortage of drugs at the hospital. In fact no new drugs had been purchased in 2014 when the Committee visited.”
Prison officials said just under 2 000 prisoners were on ART countrywide, out of a total prison population of about 20 000, which activists said was too low considering the national average of one in every four people infected in Zimbabwe, one of the African countries worst hit by AIDS.
“The parliamentary committee found that Chikurubi prison hospital had two CD4 count machines, which were no longer functional and the hospital had to seek assistance from other hospitals for this service. Other laboratory equipment was functional, but needed servicing and reactive agents to be of use to the hospital. The Committee was informed that the hospital had no viral load machines and had to outsource, which was difficult due to unavailability of transport and fuel. Most health care workers at Chikurubi were unregistered because the institution lacks financial resources for the annual registration requirements,” the report said.
People living with AIDS and were also infected with tuberculosis were especially at risk and at risk of infecting others.
All ARVs and anti TB drugs were donated by various organizations. One organization was reported to have made a cash donation of $100 000 to the prison for purchasing drugs and food but the money disappeared. Infected people were severely affected by the food shortages which hit all the country’s prisons. Prisoners at Chikurubi rioted in March protesting poor food rations.
Mentally ill patients suffered shocking neglect and there was no follow-up to ensure that those who were infected were taking medication even when it was available, said the activists.
“The Zimbabwe government is one of the most corrupt in the world. There is no way they can administer a programme like this with honesty and integrity. The UN should take charge because many people are dying unnecessarily,” said Positive Vibrations’ Sibanda, whose organization is shunned by both the corrupt National AIDS Council and the government because it is considered too vocal in demanding the rights of people living with AIDS and an end to corruption in administering ART.
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