NAIROBI, 12 April 2021 – Kenya has exempted tax on a donation of HIV drugs that have been at the center of a three-month-long stalemate, causing an acute shortage of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).
A tax dispute between the Kenyan government and donors who import antiretroviral drugs is to blame for the shortage which started two months ago.
Over the period, many public hospitals say they have found themselves rationing the drugs in order to stretch their limited and dwindling supply.
Hospital administrators in most health facilities across the country say they have completely ran out of two of the most important drugs in the HIV/AIDS treatment regiment – Nevirapine and Zidovudine syrup.
One is used to suppress viral load and boost immunity, and the other drug is used to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
As a result, patients who used to get six months of medication supply during one visit to the doctor’s, found themselves having to make-do with weekly doses.
“We don’t want to go back [to a situation] where our health is compromised and we are not able to have access to this key, vital treatment,” said Zahra Hassan, from Women Fighting HIV and AIDS group.
The shortage has had damning consequences on an estimated 1.5 million Kenyans living with HIV.
Kenya’s ministry of health has said at least 6,800 babies were born with HIV last year because their mothers did not take medication properly during pregnancy and after birth.
The ministry has advised mothers not to breastfeed their children, to prevent transmission, since the babies are not receiving the right combination of drugs.
Supply of the drugs slumped after the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) declined to import the drugs through the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA), citing corruption and mismanagement.
USAID opted, instead, to use a private company to import and distribute the drugs.
Kenya’s finance ministry granted the exemption to USAID after the health ministry said millions of Kenyans, dependent on the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs were affected.
Health experts are warning that Kenya needs to do more to build the industries and laboratories it needs in order to produce drugs locally.
This shortage should be “a wake-up call for us,” said Dr. Catherine Ngugi, who is the head of Kenya’s National AIDS and STI Control Program.
She called for the implementation of plans that have been gathering dust on shelves but were initially meant to ensure self-reliance, not only in “procuring the medication using our own funds but as well setting up our own industries to produce the drugs in the country.”