Tanzania’s HIV patients abandon ARVs for traditional ‘cure’

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By ADAM IHUCHA, Special Correspondent

HIV-POSITIVE patients in Tanzania’s lake area are abandoning their anti-retroviral regimens in favour of traditional therapy, hampering efforts to reduce the disease burden on society.

An unprecedented change of the ARV regimen by the state-run Medical Store Department (MSD) is the main reason patients are not taking their anti-HIV drugs.

The patients say some of the new ARVs have serious side effects.

Statistics from care and treatment clinics (CTCs) in Shinyanga and Geita regions, show that 9,085 HIV/Aids patients on ARV therapy have stopped their treatment in the past six months.

“Abrupt switches of ARVs are threatening our health. Some new anti-HIV regimens are too strong for our weak bodies to withstand,” said Samwel Chuma, an HIV/Aids patient at Ushetu in Kahama District, Shinyanga region.

Mr Chuma, who has been using the first line of treatment, referred to as 1a ARV regimen, since 2008, has seen his CD4 count spiralling to 670 as of June 2013, up from 50 six years ago.

But the recent change of ARV regimen had compelled him to use a stronger 1g regimen, which makes him sleep for long hours and sometimes even wet his bed.

Heavy duty treatment

Mr Chuma and the doctor in charge of Ushetu Care and Treatment Clinic, John Bundu, say that not all patients can endure the heavy-duty ARVs, prompting some patients to stop taking their medication. In Ushetu, 102 patients who were on ARVs have stopped their treatment, and 64 have died in less than a year.

“The side effects of the new drugs differ from one patient to another. But the most common side effects are nausea and fatigue,” Dr Bundu said.

Experts say side effects are often referred to by the grade of the effect, and the grades range from mild to moderate, to severe to life threatening.

Laurean Bwanakunu, the executive director of the Aerial Glaser Pediatric Aids Health Care Initiative in Shinyanga region, said monitoring the viral load is crucial before any ARV regimen change to avoid the virus developing drug resistance.

“Its painful to witness patients compelled to switch to another ARV regimen prematurely simply because the appropriate drugs are out of stock,” Mr Bwanakunu said.

He said besides inconsistency in drugs supply, HIV patients are also poorly treated in many hospitals.