The Eastern Cape health department is dithering on keeping HIV and TB medication in stock, an NGO coalition said.
Ongoing interruptions to medication supplies put lives at risk, the coalition, comprising the Rural Health Advocacy Project, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), and Section27, said in a statement. In a report to be released on Wednesday at the sixth SA Aids conference in Durban, the coalition called for urgent action by the national and Eastern Cape health departments to resolve the problem at the Mthatha medical depot.
The coalition first drew attention to problems at the depot five months ago, it said.
"It seems very little was learnt from our report in January to the Eastern Cape health authorities. It is unacceptable that there has been little or no change," said TAC general secretary Vuyiseka Dubula. "We demand that Eastern Cape MEC for health Sicelo Gqobana take leadership to end these stock-outs."
The supply problem affected more than 100 000 people who depended on 300 facilities, which received their medication from the depot.
"This situation is catastrophic. It means many thousands of people living with HIV have risked treatment interruption for months now," MSF SA deputy medical co-ordinator Amir Shroufi said.
"The stock-outs consequently undermine clinical benefits of life-saving ARV [antiretroviral] treatment. Over time, more deaths will occur as a result and the likelihood of increased drug resistance is significant."
Forty percent of 70 facilities surveyed by MSF and TAC during May in the Mthatha catchment area had HIV and/or TB drug stock-outs.
Medical staff at 24% of the affected facilities were forced to send patients home without treatment, the coalition said.
"These stock-outs were reported to last, on average, 45 days at a time and remain almost as common and severe as they were five months ago. The Eastern Cape department of health's decision to suspend 29 depot staff without a plan to provide services in their absence contributed significantly to the crisis."
The coalition said the problem was exacerbated by national drug shortages, leading to rationing supplies to depots, which affected orders.
TAC branches in Gauteng and Limpopo also received frequent reports of a lack of stock of essential drugs.
Eastern Cape health department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said the department noted the report. "We are of the view the presentation is a publicity [stunt] which is not based on the facts but history. MSF has failed to interact with the department and failed to check on the latest developments that have been implemented at the depot," he said.
Trucks turned away
The 29 officials suspended at the depot went on an illegal strike which saw delivery trucks turned away.
Kupelo said the department acted swiftly to take disciplinary action against those responsible. MSF volunteered to help the department catch up the supply backlog.
A director had been appointed and two deputies were being appointed to manage the depot. An assistant manager had also been appointed.
Four qualified pharmacists had been working at the depot for two months, with 15 others also appointed.
Kupelo said the depot had 98% antiretroviral availability and 72% chronic medicine availability.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that there is no crisis in the depot... It is unfortunate that they have chosen an international platform to mislead the world. We welcome constructive criticism but we do not want the public to be misled in the process."