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AIDS patients want less talk and more action

[Guinea] Nzerekore Hospital, Forest Region, June 2004. Pierre Holtz/IRIN
Nzerekore hospital lacks medication and facilities needed by AIDS patients

Donors and the government have launched another HIV/AIDS programme in the forest region of south-eastern Guinea, the region with the highest infection rate in the country, but HIV-positive residents are still struggling to access anti-AIDS medication. Nzerekore, the main town in the forest region, has an HIV prevalence rate of about seven percent compared to the national average of 2.8 percent, according to local government officials, yet the town has some of the poorest HIV-health facilities in the country. Last month the government with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) launched the latest in a series of programmes before a host of visiting dignitaries, but the project again falls short of providing life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for people with AIDS. Antoine Sandy, who set up and runs ‘Hope for a Healthy Life,’ a local NGO and support group for people living with HIV/AIDS, warned that people are dying unnecessarily while donors delay. "When you think what it cost - nearly six million Guinea Francs [US $1,300] - for all those dignitaries to come and give out T-shirts and dance for AIDS when that money could have brought the hospital laboratory up to standard or it could have bought two years of treatment for that girl that just died," commented Sandy, himself diagnosed HIV-positive in 1997. Nzerekore lies deep in Guinea’s lush forest region, close to borders with war-torn Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. Over the years hundreds of thousands of refugees have passed through the region, and tens of thousands still live in camps. Donors have long identified the forest region as a hotbed for HIV/AIDS, but the town lacks even basic support for HIV patients, such as facilities to test the level of the virus in the blood and determine when a patient needs to begin treatment and at what dosage.

[Guinea] Nzerekore shakes out, a day after ethnic tensions and raids by armed forces.
Nzerekore, the main city in Guinea's forest region where HIV infection is higher than the national average

Dr Bernadette Dramou, Coordinator of UNFPA’s new HIV/AIDS programme in Nzerekore told IRIN that the agency's goal was to lay the groundwork so that AIDS treatment could ultimately be provided. "Primarily, this programme is about prevention and socialisation of people who live with HIV and AIDS," said Dramou. "What makes this programme important is that it is a regional effort being jointly conducted in all the countries of the Mano River Union [Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone] and in Cote d’Ivoire." "We have to get laboratory facilities up to standard and train health personnel; getting equipment and improving lab facilities are our biggest needs," she added. The regional programme is funded by the African Development Bank, but Dramou is hopeful that negotiations between the Guinean government and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria could soon secure cash to extend the availability of ARV treatment to the forest region. But Sandy, who lives with his ageing mother in a cluster of thatch-roofed buildings, is becoming disheartened. "All we have had is ‘awareness’ and more ‘awareness’. We are too aware here in Nzerekore, while the ill are forgotten. It’s time to start treating the ill and then they can become fully involved in the working to prevent the spread of this disease." Sandy travels to Conakry every three months to take a CD4 or immune system test and pick up his medication. He counts himself lucky to be one of 60 people receiving free treatment through the Catholic relief agency, Caritas. But that programme is due to wind up soon and on 25 March, Sandy will travel to Conakry to collect his last free three-month supply. After that, he's on his own. "The official price for treatment is 35,000 Guinea Francs [US $8] for a month’s supply but you have to travel to Conakry or Guekedou," said Sandy, adding that private vendors will sell ARVs in Nzerekore, but charge four or five times the official rate and have no idea how to prescribe them.
[Guinea] An AIDS awareness billboard in Laine refugee camp, Guinea. June 2004.
An AIDS awareness sign in one of several refugee camps near Nzerekore

Conakry is a 20-hour drive from Nzerekore over 1,000 kilometres of potholed roads, while Guekedou is a bumpy six hours along the same winding route. According to Sandy, either trip is an expensive and tortuous ordeal for someone who is ill with AIDS. "Usually, someone looking for treatment is already very sick and that makes a journey like that a nightmare," said Sandy who dreads his own quarterly treks. "I have had many friends here who have died for nothing. If we had ARVs here, they would not have died. I had treatment, so I’m still here. But what happens when my treatment runs out in July, I don’t know." To read a special study on AIDS in Guinea published in April 2005, CLICK HERE (The report is only available in French)

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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