Both health minister Dr Joe Phaahla and health authorities in the Free State last week denied claims from activists that there are shortages of antiretroviral medicines at health facilities in the province. Authorities did however confirm that some people living with HIV are only given a two-week supply of medicines at a time.
“I can confidently say that there are no stockouts or shortages of ARVs in the Free State,” Phaahla told Spotlight at the World AIDS Day commemoration event in Mangaung.
This was reiterated by spokesperson for the Free State Department of Health, Mondli Mvambi saying, “We do not have shortages of HIV medicines in the province.”
He says allegations of patients not receiving their medication are very serious and cannot be taken lightly. He says should the department hear from patients who are not receiving their HIV medicine, they will investigate.
But Makhosazana Mkhatshwa, a research officer at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), says in the past three months, nine clinics in the province indicated that patients have left their facility without the medicine that they needed and of these nine clinics, three of them had sent people home because there was a stockout of HIV medication. She says impacted clinics include Poly Clinic and MUCPP in Mangaung, and Namahadi Clinic in Thabo Mofutsanyana District.
According to community-led monitoring group Ritshidze’s latest report on clinic services in the Free State, there were 40 patient reports this year of shortages of HIV medication compared to 13 patient reports last year. The report states that the most commonly reported medicine shortages by public healthcare users were contraceptives, HIV, and TB medicines. The report was based on monitoring at 28 clinics. TAC is a Ritshidze partner organisation.
Only 7 or 14-day supply for some
One woman Spotlight spoke to at the World AIDS Day commemoration event held in Mangaung last week says she is a patient at Pule Sefatsa Clinic in Botshabelo, Mangaung. “I am forced to go to clinic every week because they only give me a supply for eight days. This is an inconvenience for me because I have to skip work every week just to get my medication.”
Another public healthcare user from Bloemfontein tells Spotlight that for two weeks in October he was stranded without ARVs. He says that he is usually given a 14-day supply at a time. When he requested a full month’s supply to last him through a work-related trip to Cape Town he says his request was declined at the Poly Clinic at Pelenomi Hospital. He says he ended up going without medication.
Aron Malete, District Health Manager for Mangaung, told Spotlight there are no ARV shortages in the district, but asked for details of the above cases so that he could investigate.
We have identified people who are clinic hoppers who steal medicine. They get three months and thereafter run to another clinic to get another three months’ supply. – Mondli Mvambi, Free State health spokesperson
The problem is not stockouts per se, but a shortage of medication, says Sello Mokhalipi, Secretary General of Positive Action Campaign. “You will find that there is a shortage of ARVs for seven days, then the next week it will be available,” he says.
Mokhalipi, like other activists Spotlight spoke to, is opposed to giving people only a seven or 14-day supply of medication at a time. He says people should be given enough for three to six months.
When Spotlight put the concerns and calls for multi-month dispensing to Mvambi he says, “We have identified people who are clinic hoppers who steal medicine. They get three months and thereafter run to another clinic to get another three months’ supply. To curb this practice,” Mvambi says, “we keep people on seven and 14 days’ supply The idea is to give them a few days because they claim to have forgotten their clinic cards.”
According to him, people get three months’ supply when they have their clinic card because clinic staff can verify who they are and what medicine they have been receiving.
Doing ‘exceptionally well’ but there are concerns
According to Phaahla who delivered a speech at the World AIDS Day commemoration event, the province has done “exceptionally well in terms of testing, having already surpassed the 94 percent threshold”. Phaahla said 94 percent of people who are living with HIV in the province know their status, 86 percent of those who know their status are on antiretroviral treatment, and 92 percent of those who are on treatment are virally suppressed.
He, however, singled out some districts such as Xhariep and Lejweleputswa where he says the “number of people with HIV and on treatment fare poorly on the target of being virally suppressed”. “This,” Phaahla says, “is very concerning and we must urgently intervene to create a balance among the targets in order to achieve zero new infections by 2030. This includes ensuring that services are brought closer to the people and that our health facilities are adequately resourced with medicine and related necessities.”
“Results for each of the sub-populations vary with adult females at 95 – 91 – 93, adult males at 93 – 77 – 93, and children at 82 – 65 – 68,” says Mvambi. “To achieve the 95 – 95 -95 targets the Free State must increase the number of adult men on ART by 25 745, adult women on ART by 9 744, and children on ART by 5 138.”
“As you can see,” says Mvambi, “the women are more likely to get tested, be initiated on ART, and have their viral load suppressed than their counterparts.”
According to the Free State Department of Health’s latest annual report for the financial year 2021/2022, the number of patients initiated on ARV treatment dropped from 36 776 in 2019/2020 to 26 364 in 2021/2022. In the report, the department states that it failed to meet its target for retaining adults on ART in care. The ART adult remain-in-care rate in 2019/20 was 68%. In 2020/21, it dropped to 52.8% and picked up in 2020/21 at 67.3%. Among the reasons the department cites are the high number of loss to follow-up of clients and “poor tracing by community healthcare workers due to poor supervision”.
NOTE: An employee of the TAC is quoted in this article. Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the TAC, but is editorially independent – an independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.