Relief as Kenya, US thrash out tiff over HIV medicines

Thursday, July 1st, 2021 00:00 |
Activists and people living with HIV demonstrate outside Afya House in Nairobi, yesterday. Photo/PD/John Ochieng

George Kebaso and Noah Cheploen

Kenyans living with HIV/Aids can  breathe a sigh of relief after the government and US resolved the standoff on Antiretrovirals (ARV) drugs. 

The drugs that arrived in the country in January  were detained at the Mombasa port after the Kenya Revenue Authority and USAid failed to agree on who should pay the taxes – or whether there should be any tax claim in the first place.

In a statement to newsrooms yesterday, the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) Chief Executive Ruth Laibon-Masha announced that the long-running stalemate between the government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) had been unlocked after a series of meetings.

“Resolutions included the signing of a framework and implementation letter to facilitate tax and fee waivers, and distribution of USAid purchased commodities, which have since been cleared and ready for distribution,” said Masha.

To unlock the impasse, the Principal Secretary  for Health Susan Mochache appointed a committee on May 11 to work on modalities of resolving the stalemate.

The committee drew representatives from Afya House, NACC, National AIDS and STI Control Programme, Malaria Programme, Kenya Medical Supplies Authority, Pharmacy and Poisons Board and the Council of Governors.

Before the announcement was made yesterday, hundreds of members of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) demonstrated at Uhuru Park, calling on the government to act urgently or risk seeing 1.5 million people give up the fight against the virus.

Grievances were based on the current ARVs stock out among other HIV commodities, including testing that has seen missed opportunities among expectant women visiting health facilities for antenatal care.

Florenzos Baraza, 62, who has been on medication for 17 years, said the last few weeks have been a dark cloud. 

“I have had to take a half dose, and sometimes never thought I would wake up alive.

Imagine that the availability of these drugs is all that stands between you and life,” he said at Uhuru Park where he joined other PLHIVs in the protest. 

Baraza recounted that previously he would get his complete medication, a phenomenon that has taken a turn for the worse.

“But now when we go for medication, two of us are asked to share a bottle of tablets,” he recollected. 

Similar concerns

Joyce Adhiambo, 49, expressed similar concerns, but accused the government of lethargy. She has been under medication for 18 years.

“Over time we have realised that this government is playing games with our lives. Sometimes we are told that the drugs are coming and at times, we are told that the medicines are stuck at the port,” she said. 

PLHIVs also lamented over lack of testing among HIV exposed babies and a looming shortage of condoms in the country.

This standoff that became public in April had put the lives of many people in danger after the government declined to clear the consignment of ARVs and Tuberculosis drugs worth an estimated Sh1.1 billion over a Sh45.8 tax dispute.

Children and unborn babies also bore the brunt of the stalemate believed to have started last October. 

Some 258,954 packs of Tenofovir, Lamivudine Dolutegravir), the main ARV drugs, have been lying at the port since January.

But in a bid to unlock the impasse, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe wrote to the Commissioner General of KRA in April with an undertaking that his ministry had resolved to pay the Sh48.82 million in taxes and levies.

Some PLHIV were forced to skip their doses while others got none at all as the taxman held its ground, arguing that import arrangement flouted the tax waiver policies on government-to-government donations necessitating the tax demand.

While outlining the steps that the country has made in the fight against HIV/Aids, Laibon-Masha said that of the 1.5 million people living with HIV/Aids, 1.2 million are currently on long-term lifesaving ARVs.

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