AIDS council letting us down: activists

arv_patientHARARE -- Zimbabwe's National AIDS Council (NAC) has purchased US$890,000 worth of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs following allegations that it was abusing funds generated by a three-percent tax on income known as the AIDS levy. (Pictured: A woman living with HIV taking antiretrovirals tablets. Anthony Kaminju/IRIN)

The government body charged with coordinating anti-AIDS efforts had collected about US$1.7 million since February 2009, but spent only US$20,000 on ARVs, prompting HIV/AIDS activists to call for a financial audit. ??

The AIDS levy was introduced in 1999 to help finance HIV/AIDS programmes, particularly ARV purchases, but the NAC has consistently come under fire for failing to use the fund to improve the welfare of people living with HIV. Several recent media reports have alleged that most of the money was being spent on salaries and perks. ??

“For years this fund has been more controversial than beneficial to us people living with HIV,” said Stanley Takaona, deputy president of the Zimbabwe HIV and AIDS Activist Union (ZHAU), which has been calling for reform of the NAC. ?

“We want the NAC to be removed from the administration of this fund so that it can focus on its other role of coordinating HIV/AIDS programmes in Zimbabwe – a more credible organization should take over the role of administrator. We also want a thorough audit of the AIDS levy over the years,” he said. ??

Mdecins Sans Frontires, the international medical humanitarian organization, estimates that 400 of the more than 1.7 million people living with HIV in Zimbabwe die every day from AIDS-related illnesses; according to the health ministry, about 155,000 patients are getting ARVs from public health facilities – just under half the number thought to be in need of the drugs. ?

In July the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria replaced the NAC as the principal recipient of grants after the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) diverted more than US$7 million of Global Fund money. ?

The RBZ eventually returned the money, earmarked for scaling up the national ARV programme, but Global Fund grants are now channelled through the UN Development Programme (UNDP). ?

“When the AIDS levy was set up, it was with the intention of taking care of those living with HIV, not to pay salaries and buy expensive cars for administrators of the fund – if we accept this [as the norm] then we have totally lost the plot,” said Douglas Gwatidzo, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR). ??

“The money for the administration of the AIDS Levy must come from the fiscus, so that this fund remains solely for procurement of ARVs, care and support of those living with HIV,” he told IRIN/PlusNews. ??

The NAC has refuted the allegations, insisting in a statement that no funds had been misused, and blaming the delay in procuring ARVs on “long tender procedures” and “the fact that it is not cost effective to procure ARVs using the AIDS levy on a monthly basis, as the cost of procurement will outstrip the intended supply.” ??

Gwatidzo said the NAC should not be allowed to “hold the lives of people living with HIV at ransom because of tender procedures … I don’t believe that tender procedures can take as much as eight months – we are talking about people’s lives here, and they need to be serious about this.”??

Most of the ARVs available in Zimbabwe’s public health sector are provided by foreign donors, including the Global Fund, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Clinton Foundation.

Post published in: Analysis

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