Feature story

UNAIDS and civil society helping stranded people living with HIV

22 May 2020

A day before Deepak Sing (not his real name) planned to return to India, all international travel ground to a halt—he was stuck in Luanda.

Because of his frequent travel, he had extra HIV medicine, but his supplies started to run low.

“I visited more than 10 pharmacies and explored options of delivery of antiretroviral medicines from India to Angola, but without success,” he said.

He decided that reaching out to Indian colleagues would be his best bet.

“I contacted the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai, and they in turn contacted the UNAIDS India office,” he explained.

Bilali Camara, the UNAIDS Country Director for India, immediately followed up with his peer in Angola. The UNAIDS Country Director for Angola, Michel Kouakou, guided Mr Sing towards the national AIDS institute, which organized a conference call with a medical doctor because one of the medicines that Mr Sing took is not yet in use in Angola. The doctor proposed a substitute and in less than 24 hours he picked up his medication. “Due to the change of one medicine, Mr Sing received only a one-month supply, which will be renewed at his discretion,” explained Mr Kouakou, who has helped two other stranded foreigners in the past month.

“I now believe that humanity exists!" Mr Sing said with great relief.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UNAIDS has helped stranded people to obtain HIV medicine in countries as diverse as Canada, China, Latvia, Myanmar and Ukraine. Mr Camara said that UNAIDS set up a system so that 700 people from India who were living in Myanmar could access their medicine, since they could no longer access it in India because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Jacek Tyszko, Senior Programme Adviser at UNAIDS’ Geneva headquarters, has never seen anything like this. So far, he has helped 100 people, mostly in eastern Europe, because of his experience in the region.

“Either I connect people to the local AIDS authority or ideally we link them up to civil society, because they usually have readily available treatment,” he explained. Because of demand, some grass-roots organizations have run out of supplies, which meant some readjusting.

“Overall, the response from local partners has been immediate,” Mr Tyszko said. In certain cases, if stranded people could not get treatment locally, UNAIDS helped them to get supplies from the person’s native country.

He cannot believe how people have had to overcome so many hurdles to obtain HIV medicine despite a clear need.

“In times of crisis like COVID-19 or other public emergencies, governments should waive restrictions to make it easier for people to obtain refills and life-saving care, regardless of their legal status, residency or citizenship,” he said.

UNAIDS has been advocating for the right to health and universal health coverage to alleviate problems like this. A better integration of HIV and other health services could help some of the gaps in the AIDS response to be addressed, which will ultimately make it easier for people to access life-saving medicines, care and support.

For now, Mr Tyszko feels that helping people is very satisfying. “It’s been such a boost to do something so concrete with immediate effect,” he said.