Officials from the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) held a meeting with the a group of HIV-positive people who are holding a protest for almost a month over alleged shortage of HIV medicines.
The drugs, known as antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, are short in the country, as per protesters. Officials have assured fresh supply of medicines. They further claimed on Thursday that fresh supplies were being expedited and airlifted to priority locations. However, the protestors said they will continue the protest until "all HIV patients in India start receiving one month of medicines".
Protesters have alleged complete unavailability of certain drugs, including those for children living with HIV, and random shifting to another class of drugs for most of the patients. They say non-availability of drugs for the next few weeks could will lead to serious complications.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. While there is no cure for HIV and it cannot be removed from the body, it can be managed with antiretroviral drugs — the drugs in shortage as per protesters. "With antiretroviral therapy, HIV can be well-managed, and life expectancy can be nearly the same as someone who has not contracted HIV," notes Healthline.
If it's not treated or treatment is stopped in between, then HIV can progress to AIDS, which is the third and final stage of HIV infection.
Official sources said the officers have been in constant touch with the protestors from the day they launched the dharna at NACO's Chanderlok office in Delhi. In the beginning, discussions were held with division heads of NACO and subsequently escalated to the next level-the director of NACO. A source said that particular efforts have been made to ensure safety of the protestors in terms of making available drinking water, electricity and basic amenities at the NACO office premises, a source said.
An official source told PTI, "In today's meeting, the NACO director assured two representatives of significant improvements in the ARV fresh supplies that are being expedited and airlifted to priority locations. While the representatives acknowledged these improvements in stock availability and dispensation for one month, especially in Delhi and many other states, they continued to raise anecdotal issues of 'stock-out' of ART [antiretroviral therapy centres] in few states as well as lay instances of patients not receiving drugs."
A protestor told PTI on Thursday, "We are protesting since July 21. Due to heat and outside food, people have started falling ill. We were here on August 15 like prisoners. Entire India was celebrating Independence Day but we were here. The building and the toilets were locked. We had to walk down to the ground floor for basic facilities. One thing that keeps us on our toes is the need of our brothers and sisters in the community.
"Today, we held a meeting with NACO officials and they assured us that every patient in Delhi has started receiving one month of ARV. We were asked to call off the protest but we were firm and our response was very clear that we will continue our protest till all HIV patients in India start receiving one month of medicines."
NACO Additional Secretary and Director General Alok Saxena said the organisation will continue to hear voices of the community and that it believes in the culture of working in partnership with them to design and implement strategies outlined under the National AIDS Control Programme. He urged the representatives to end the dharna, especially since their demand for ARV drug dispensation for at least one month at a time is met with. Also, he said, since NACO is a government office, protests during weekends will be non-productive.
He also appealed to the representatives to repose their faith in the system, end the protest and vacate the NACO premises, sources said.
The official source said, "The focus has been on non-confrontational cooperative partnership. Community representatives are always included in meetings of technical resource groups and other consultations of NACO, prior to any major policy or programmatic decision.
"The director said once the protestors lift the dharna, NACO and People Living With HIV (PLHIV) networks can jointly evolve timelines so that the entire machinery is responsive and work is done to everyone's satisfaction in a time-bound manner.
"Also, according to past practice, key members of the network volunteering to help in streamlining the systems to ensure seamless delivery of ARVs to PLHIV could come to NACO office and engage with officers."
However, dharna is yet to be called off. While this time, officials have assured delivery, earlier they had denied any shortage altogether.
PTI reported last week that Health Ministry officials at the time said there was no reported stock out for any ARV drugs at the state level and fresh supply orders for procurement of the next lot of several drugs are already placed. Individual ART centres may have this issue at times, but the medicines are immediately relocated from nearby centres, they said.
There is an adequate stock nationally for around 95 per cent people living with HIV in India who are on first and second line ARV regimens like tablet TLD (Tenofovir+ Lamivudine+ Dolutegravir) and other ARV regimens, the officials said.
However, protesters at the time alleged that one of the "backbone" drugs was unavailable since April.
A protester told PTI, "Dolutegravir 50 Mg is the backbone of the National AIDS Control Programme and since April the drug is not available at almost all individual antiretroviral therapy (ART) centres across the country. We have written multiple letters to State AIDS Control Society and NACO and health ministry, mentioning the shortage of this life-saving drug but there has been no response. Besides, DTG, another drug TL is also not available."
The dharna, however, is yet to be called off, he said.
Health ministry officials had earlier said there there was enough stock of all ARV drugs at the state level and fresh supply orders for procurement of the next lot of several drugs had been placed.
Individual ART centres may have this issue at times, but the medicines are immediately relocated from nearby centres, they had said.
The government had recently told Lok Sabha that there is adequate stock of ARV medicines for around 95 per cent of people living with HIV in India. This too was criticised by protestors last week as they highlighted that the government itself acknowledged that they don't have enough drugs for the 100 per cent HIV patients.
"The government is claiming that there is adequate stock nationally for around 95 per cent of 'People Living with HIV' who are on first and second line ARV regimens in the country. So going by that figure, 5 per cent of 13,88,000 HIV affected individuals are not getting life saving drugs," said one of the protesters to PTI last week.
(With PTI inputs)