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HEALTH: A Phone Call Could Provide HIV/AIDS Treatment

Isaiah Esipisu

NAIROBI, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - Soon chatting to ones friends or family over a mobile phone could mean that an HIV positive person will receive sustainable antiretroviral treatment (ART) that could prolong their life. That is if civil society in Kenya has its way.

A medical expert at the Kakamega General Hospital opens a cabinet with antiretrovirals. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

A medical expert at the Kakamega General Hospital opens a cabinet with antiretrovirals. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Civil society is currently trying to find sustainable ways to provide medication for HIV positive Kenyans without having to rely on donor funding. Currently over 90 percent of the money used to supply ART to Kenyans comes from donor funds.

Some of the proposals that civil society has presented to parliament for cabinet deliberation include; imposing a ‘negligible’ levy on every call made using a mobile phone, introducing a similar levy on individuals living in the diaspora, and removing all Kenyans with insurance cover from free medication schemes because their insurance can easily pay their medical bills.

“If the proposal finds favour among the law makers, then the funds raised from such levies will go a long way to scale up the number of Kenyans living with HIV/AIDS who need to be enrolled on antiretroviral therapy, and sustain treatment in case the donors pull out or reduce the funding,” said James Kamau from the non-governmental organisation, Kenya Treatment Access Movement. The organisation advocates for universal access to treatment, care and support for all people living with HIV in Kenya.

Kamau, who is HIV positive, knows how important it is to ensure that ART is sustainable. “I discovered that I was HIV positive 24 years ago. And since I was lucky to access the antiretroviral therapy in good time, I am still alive and working like any other Kenyan. Yet, my life can only be sustained further if I continue taking the drugs,” he said.

Two years ago, the Obama administration considered flat-lining its funding to the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR, which is the largest component of the U.S. President’s Global Health Initiative programme, solely funds all paediatric HIV management and Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission programmes in Kenya. It led civil society to investigate alternative ways to fund the programmes.


In Kenya, it is estimated that 1.4 million people are living with HIV, among them, 760,000 have full- blown AIDS. But only 343,000 Kenyans have access to the life-saving drugs.

According to Dr. Nicholus Muraguri, the head of the National AIDS & STI Control Programme (NASCOP), 90 percent of HIV/AIDS programmes in Kenya are donor funded.

“It is a pity that we entirely depend on the donor community to fund such important programs,” said Muraguri.

However, Muraguri noted that in some cases, the donor community is politically driven, meaning that there is a possibility of it being frozen without warning. “Other than this, rich countries will always prioritise their local challenges before they consider supporting donor agencies,” he said.

Two months ago the Japanese government, a major supporter of the Global Fund, announced that it intends to reduce its contribution to the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis(TB), in order to spend the resources on reconstructing the country in the wake of the recent tsunami and earthquake.

“We are totally supporting civil society in agitating for domestic funding of HIV/AIDS treatment through additional taxes because the government has not been able to support the (HIV/AIDS programmes) through the national budget,” said Muraguri.

According to Kamau, civil society is targeting mobile phone users because nearly all other sectors have already been overtaxed. “What we are asking for is a 10 Kenyan cent levy for every phone call made from the country. And if managed well, several lives will be saved,” he said.

Zimbabwe was one of the first countries in Africa to develop a comprehensive national AIDS policy by introducing an AIDS levy through an act of parliament. Through the scheme, all taxable monthly incomes are taxed, and the fund goes directly to help people living with HIV to access treatment.

In a similar program, UNITAID – an international facility for the purchase of drugs against HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB in developing countries – has managed to raise about two billion dollars since 2006 through taxes on airline tickets in 15 countries, according to a statement by the organisation.

However, more needs to be done in order to ensure that whatever money raised will be well spent. Kenya is among 10 other countries being investigated over the improper use of money meant for fighting HIV, malaria and TB donated by the Global Fund.

 
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