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Reinstate the free antiretroviral drug scheme

This was made possible thanks to a cocktail of global action and national programmes, providing the life-saving medication at more or less free of charge. While the HIV/AIDS threat has receded, it is still a major health concern for many countries, particularly in the developing countries.
So it came as shock to many when hundreds of members of Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN) last week took to the streets to protest alleged new government policy to limit funding for the scheme that provides antiretroviral drugs to three million people living with the virus. They picketed the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) for the new policy, which they claimed has led to the death of over 20,000 of their members.
They complained of their inability to access antiretroviral drugs in hospitals and other health centres, and that international agencies, due to budget cuts or other priorities, have started reducing funding for HIV services in Nigeria.
Comprising men, women and children, the protest leaders accused NACA of failing to implement last year’s Presidential Comprehensive Response Plan (PCRP) to address the problem of accessing antiretroviral drugs. The organisers said that of the N8bn budgeted this year by the government for the implementation of PCRP, only 20 percent has so far been appropriated.  
NACA’s Director General, Professor John Idoko, said that of the N140bn estimated for PCRP to be financed with money from Subsidy Reinvestment Programme (SURE-P) in the first year alone, only N8bn was appropriated. Idoko assured that PCRP treatment would eventually be implemented nationwide, but was being restricted to Taraba and Abia  states now because it was  a ‘stop-gap’ intervention from the government of the United States.
“On the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund, we are targeting to put 40,000 people on drugs. This is unprecedented. Even in the past, the government of Nigeria never did this. And I want to emphasise that PEPFAR is not withdrawing. PEPFAR is reducing its activities. But in those areas where they are reducing, we decided to bridge the gap,” he said.
Professor Idoko needs to clarify these statements, because they evince the notion of funding cutbacks that NEPWHAN complained about. Fears of such cutbacks should be taken seriously; if they do take place, they would present a huge problem in the control of HIV/AIDS that should be tackled before it snowballs into a bigger emergency. The government should make contingency plans to care for its citizens in the event of foreign aid to support HIV/AIDS programmes being withdrawn. In fact, a number of such donors have stopped sending in the cash, complaining that their aid was not used for the purpose it was provided. As a result of dwindling aid money, HIV/AIDs patients are expected to shoulder more of the responsibility for their drugs, which is not practicable and could be a drawback in the fight against the scourge. As reports indicate, HIV patients began paying N12,000 a year each for laboratory services out of their pockets as from the beginning of last month. That may look like a small amount; but given the peculiar situation of the economy, many cannot muster it at all.
Because of the obvious implications of increasing HIV prevalence, the government should continue to be responsible for providing the drugs and other support services.
The Ebola incident demonstrated how concerted effort, with the government taking the lead, could bring a positive outcome.  The government should be wary of neglecting the potential of the HIV/AIDS making a stronger and more potent impact by relaxing its guard. HIV/AIDS prevalence may have reduced to 3.4 percent; the non-availability of the antiretroviral drugs, or making access to them harder and more expensive, could reverse those gains.

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