Theft of Antiretroviral drugs (ARV) from government Central Medical Stores is believed to have caught a second wind with the Zimbabwean economic crisis providing a lucrative market for the illegal drugs.
The Voice of America this week quoted a World Health Organization doctor who revealed that there is an upsurge of illegal ARVs in Zimbabwe coming from Botswana where they are sourced cheaply.
In Zimbabwe, ARVs are very expensive and the food crisis has worsened the plight of people living with the deadly virus, the leading doctor told Radio VOP in an interview. While Botswana has invested millions of Pula in its ARV programme, estimates are that there are now more than three million people in Zimbabwe living with HIV and AIDS with about 12 people dying every 10 minutes because of lack of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).
The WHO doctor, who cannot be named for professional reasons, was in Zimbabwe to meet with Ministry of Health officials, including the Health Minister, David Parirenyatwa.
He is also a consultant for hospitals such as Parirenyatwa and Harare, which have HIV and AIDS programmes for cash-strapped citizens in Harare. He said while more than three million people were living with HIV and AIDS, only about 100 000 were on ARVs, the drugs that help treat HIV. Government provides drugs to about 60 000 of these, he said.
Botswana’s former Minister of Health, Sheila Tlou, last year told Parliament that she was aware of allegations of theft by ministry personnel of ARV drugs from Central Medical Stores for selling to both local and foreign pharmacies and to private medical practitioners.
Tlou promised government that closed circuit television, access cards, private security guards and body searches were some of the measures which would be employed to curb theft of ARV drugs at Central Medical Stores (CMS).
“We are also processing a tender for private security guards and authority has been granted for searching all persons coming into/leaving Central Medical Stores,” she said.
Reports from Zimbabwe, however, indicate that the volume of illegal ARVs trafficked from Botswana has shot up following Zimbabwe’s economic melt down and rise in HIV\AIDS cases.
Another study, by Transparency International, suggests that besides theft by medical personnel, some AIDS patients who are on ARVs may be selling their prescriptions to raise money for food.
“At the petty end are patients who sell their own medication because it is the only valuable commodity they have,” stated the Transparency International report for Sub Sahara Africa.
Francistown High Court Judge, Justice Moses Chinhengo, last month presided over a high profile ARV theft case in which Bashi Mokwatso, Metlha Maphanyane and a Nigerian, Okolo Anthony Ikechukwu, allegedly broke into the Infectious Disease Clinic Centre at the Maun General Hospital pharmacy twenty months ago and stole ARV tablets worth P128, 080.
Mokwatso and Maphanyane were sentenced to four and half years imprisonment and Ikechukwu to three and half years.
Okechukwu lost a court bid last year when he applied to be deported to Nigeria after he was slapped with a presidential decree declaring him a Prohibited Immigrant (PI).
His uncle, Dr Henry, who owned a clinic in Maun, was declared a prohibited immigrant and later deported to his native country. In is judgment, the judge noted that:
“The evidence as a whole suggests strongly that Okechukwu acted in consultation with and at the instance of Dr Henry. He was a young man at the time and entirely dependent on him.
“In my view he could not have gone out of his way on his own to purchase the drugs for Okavango Family Clinic without the full knowledge, consent and participation of De Henry,” Chinhengo decided.