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ARVS smuggled to South Africa


While Malawi hospitals are experiencing drug stock outs, some Malawians are smuggling drugs, including ARVs, to South Africa where they sell at informal markets, Malawi News has established.

The findings reveal that business people, mostly women who sell food stuffs like beans, rice, silver fish and groundnuts, sell the drugs secretly at Park Station and Munorurama depot in South Africa.

The drugs include Indocid, Bactrim which is currently not available in public hospitals in Malawi, with ARVs topping the list.

One of the business women confided in Malawi News that they buy the ARVs from private hospitals at K7,000 per bottle. These private hospitals are alleged to have been sourcing the drugs from government hospitals.

“Here in South Africa we sell a bottle of ARVs at R500 (about K18,000) while other drugs like bactrim are sold at R5 (about K180) per tablet. We do this secretly while doing our normal business of selling food stuffs,” she said.

According to another source who has been in this business for over four years, she hides the drugs at very strategic places where no one can notice even if searched.

“I hide the drugs under food warmers, or I pack them in the bags of rice which I also sell in South Africa. Sometimes I pack them in an envelope as if it’s a parcel for someone, or sometimes I would hide them in my top (wind breaker)” she explained.

Asked why she is still doing the illegal business which might put her in trouble one day, our source said: “Apart from monetary gains which I benefit from the business, I am doing this to save lives of my fellow Malawians who are afraid to have access to medical attention at South African hospitals for fear of being deported once discovered that they do not have permits.”

Pharmacy medicines and poisons board confirmed that some business people smuggle the drugs but said they are usually caught.

Acting registrar Aaron Sosola attributed the tendency to lenient sentences that are meted to the culprits once taken to court.

“Our inspectors have been arresting such people the only challenge is that the penalties are very lenient. We have even trained MRA officers on our borders and sometimes they tell us when they have caught the culplrits.

“Drugs like ARVs and bactrim are prescriptions only and for one to sell them they need to have a licence after we inspect their premises,” Sosola said.

In a separate interview, some Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) officers who work at Mwanza border said that some business women hide the drugs in their under wears, while some hide them in their hand bags.

“These cases have always been there only that all the cases are reported to the regional offices through a situation report. So if you talk to the officials at the regional office, they will assist you with the information,” said one officer.

The officer further explained that on a weekly basis, at least five cases are recorded among the passengers who pass the border through buses adding that some drugs are smuggled through trucks.

Ministry of health spokesperson Henry Chimbali said he could not rule out the misuse of some drugs and other HIV supplies.

“We haven’t been informed about these practices but we can’t rule out some sporadic misuse of the drugs and other HIV supplies. For the other drugs, we know they are sometimes smuggled to other countries through many means,” he said.

Police spokesperson Davie Chingwalu said they have not made any arrests on the issue but said they will treat the issue as a tip to bring the culprits to book.

“We have had cases before whereby some people were found with other drugs or ARVs but they had with them prescription letters so there was no way we could have arrested them because they had proof that they were on medication,” Chingwalu said.


HIV afflicted boy rots away as ARVs dry up

By Sadab Kitatta Kaaya

Five-year-old Fred Twinomugisha tested HIV positive about four years ago, after the death of his mother, Jessica Tukamuhaabwa.  Due to his deteriorating condition, he was immediately started on anti-retroviral therapy (ART), which he would access from Lwebitakuli Health Centre III, about 15km from his home in Lwendezi village, Lwebitakuli sub-county, Sembabule district.

Godfrey Ngabirano, Twinomugisha’s maternal uncle and guardian, tried in vain to establish contact with the boy’s father.  “My sister [Tukamuhaabwa] died before she could tell us the father of her child,” Ngabirano says. “All the three men who had previously claimed responsibility rejected the boy when they learnt of his HIV status.”

Of the three men, Ngabirano can only identify one Kisuule of Kirebe village and a Ronald of Kasambya village in Lwebitakuli. After they disowned the boy, Ngabirano could not sit back and watch his nephew waste away. He shouldered the responsibility of regularly taking him to Lwebitakuli health centre for ART.

Unfortunately, for the last five months he has not been able to access ARVs at Lwebitakuli after the health centre ran short of supplies.  “I had taken him on his clinic day, but the nurses referred us to Mateete health centre,” Ngabirano says.

Mateete health centre had no drugs either, and health workers there referred them further, to Masaka regional referral hospital. However, this peasant family could not afford the transport fare to Masaka and chose to wait until the district gets new ARVs supplies.

Besides, they might have failed to get assistance from Masaka hospital too, after its CD4 blood count machine broke down recently, leaving hundreds of AIDS patients stranded. Five months on, there remains little hope that ARVs will be brought to a health facility within Twinomugisha’s proximity, yet the effect of the break in treatment is already evident, as the little boy is growing frail.

He moves with a lot of unease as he watches his contemporaries run about the family compound. His body is developing sores, and some on his feet and fingers are open. As a result, his friends avoid him.

“Even if they wanted to play with him, there is no way he can match their pace. Besides, we fear that others could get infected through direct contact with him,” Ngabirano says.

Gloom in Sembabule

Twinomugisha is certainly not the only AIDS patient in the district suffering this way. According to Strides for Family Health, a health promotion NGO in Sembabule, the number of people testing HIV positive is on the rise in the district.

The NGO’s spokesperson, Thadeus Atuhura, puts the prevalence rates in Sembabule at about 40%, according to information gathered in their voluntary counselling and testing programme that is part of Strides’ outreach programme in the district.

“In Lwebitakuli sub-county alone, we have so far tested about 1,000 people, and about 400 of them have tested HIV positive, mainly women and their children,” Atuhura told The Observer.

Source: The Observer