Protest in India Over HIV Drug Shortage Ends After 42 Days

A protest by a group of HIV-positive people in New Delhi, demanding a regular supply of life-saving antiretroviral therapy drugs across the country, ended this week, after 42 days, as the government has reportedly resumed the interrupted supply of the drugs.

Around 2.3 million people are infected with HIV in India. Since 2004, the government has been providing free antiviral therapy, known as ART, to HIV-positive people in India. The therapy stops replication of the virus, helping patients live longer and cutting the risk of transmission of the virus to others. Around 1.5 million HIV patients depend on the free government-supplied ART drugs.

The demonstration, at the central office of the Health Ministry’s National AIDS Control Organization, or NACO, which manages HIV and AIDS prevention and control programs in India, began in July, after activists claimed the supply of the drugs became irregular, with many medicines no longer available in centers. The activists said many HIV-positive people were only getting drugs for three, four, or five days and others were not getting the drugs at all.

HIV activist Hari Shankar, a leader of the Delhi protest, said this week after withdrawing from the protest that the authorities had resumed the supply of ART drugs to each patient for a month, after a gap of three or four months.

One of the HIV activists who took part in the New Delhi protest is creating a poster thanking India’s National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) and other related agencies, in New Delhi, Sept. 1, 2022. (Jitendra Jha/VOA)

“Our network informed us this week that the ART centers across the country have begun handing out at least one month’s supply of drugs to each patient. They have fulfilled our main demand,” Shankar, a member of the HIV/AIDS activist group Delhi Network of Positive People, or DNP Plus, told VOA Thursday.

In an emailed statement, the health ministry told the VOA last month that there was “no stock-out of drugs” and there were “no instances of disruptions or non-availability of treatment services or ARV medicines at the national and state levels.”

Over 90% of HIV-positive people receiving ART cannot afford to buy the drugs from the market and they were suffering badly because of the crisis of the supply from the ART centers, the activists said during the protest. They also expressed concerns that the drug crisis could lead to many patients becoming fatally ill.

Many HIV-positive people have expressed relief after the NACO resumed its regular supply of ART drugs this week.

“During the crisis, in July and August, I took my daily ART doses after buying the drugs with money borrowed from relatives. I cannot afford to buy them with my meager earnings. I began worrying that very soon I would have to skip my doses,” Khelen, a 45-year-old HIV-positive man, who uses one name and works as a porter in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern state of Manipur, told VOA.

HIV activists, who demanded a regular supply of ART drugs for all HIV patients in India, left this poster on the wall in front of the NACO office, in New Delhi, Sept. 1, 2022. (Jitendra Jha/VOA)

HIV activists, who demanded a regular supply of ART drugs for all HIV patients in India, left this poster on the wall in front of the NACO office, in New Delhi, Sept. 1, 2022. (Jitendra Jha/VOA)

“Now I have heard this week that there is no stock-out of the drugs at the ART centers starting this week. This is truly very happy news for me.”

DNP Plus founder Loon Gangte said that despite resistance from different quarters he and his colleagues had to continue their protest until the authorities met their demand.

“Pressure came from many sides to make us withdraw our protest. But we were very concerned about the health of our hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive brothers and sisters in the country and so we stood our ground and kept insisting that we would not call off our protest until our main demand is met,” Gangte told VOA.

“Now we have happily ended our protest as soon as the ART centers across the country have resumed the regular monthly supply of the drugs to all patients.”

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