Panadol given to Zimbabwe's Aids patients as life-saving drugs run out

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The Independent Online

The HIV/Aids epidemic gripping Zimbabwe looks set to spiral further out of control because President Robert Mugabe's foundering government is running out of antiretroviral drugs.

Efforts to provide tens of thousands of people with the life-saving medicines are failing as a shortage of foreign currency prevents the National Pharmaceutical Company, Zimbabwe's chief drugs repository, from distributing the antiretrovirals (ARVs), the state-run Herald newspaper said.

"There are 20,000 people on the ARVs national programme and we have less than a month's supply of the vital drugs, and that is not encouraging," Charles Mwaramba, the company's acting director, told a parliamentary committee.

Zimbabwe's struggling health sector has been badly damaged by a severe economic crisis which has seen the inflation rate soar to 913 per cent. Shortages of foreign currency, fuel, food, water and electricity have brought the once prosperous country to its knees.

About 1.8 million of Zimbabwe's 12 million citizens are infected with HIV/Aids. Of that group, 295,000 need antiretroviral treatment immediately, but only 8,000 - less than 3 per cent - are receiving it, according to a recent report from the World Health Organisation.

With an average of 3,000 people dying each week from Aids in the country, yesterday's news that anti-retroviral drugs stocks are drying up was greeted with horror. For the estimated 1.61 million people infected with full-blown Aids, the future now looks even more bleak than before.

Many people, such as Lazarus Zhuwao, whose brother, Emmanuel, is dying of the virus, blame President Mugabe's erratic and destructive policies for making their deaths inevitable.

After his brother tested HIV positive last year, Mr Zhuwao was told by a doctor that Emmanuel should start to take antiretroviral drugs. In a telephone interview from Harare, Mr Zhuwao said he would have sold any of his meagre belongings to buy the ARVs, but none were available. When he took Emmanuel to the main hospital in Harare, he was prescribed Panadol painkillers.

Mr Zhuwao said he was surprised by reports that Zimbabwe was running out of ARVs: "It seemed there have long been none at all," he said.

Owing to acute foreign currency shortages, Zimbabwe has been unable to import ARVs and now has roughly a month's supply left. An Aids activist for a prominent NGO, who declined to be named, said drugs donated from abroad were insufficient to cater for those in need.

"State hospitals and clinics here are death chambers. People go there to die," she said. "They [state hospitals] don't have the drugs, nor the staff to administer these drugs. People are dying like flies, particularly in the rural areas, where Aids is worsened by poverty and malnutrition."

Mr Mwaramba said yesterday that his National Pharmaceutical Company was allocated just $106,000 (£58,000) for ARVs by the central Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe between January and March, instead of the $7.4m it required.

"We understand that drugs are also competing with other items like fuel for foreign currency, but the picture is not encouraging," he said.

Zimbabwe's economy has been in freefall since President Mugabe expelled more than 4,000 white farmers and confiscated their land for re-distribution in February 2000. Most of the repatriated land is now lying fallow. Four million Zimbabweans are relying on the World Food Programme for food.