Ms Maria Amucu, a resident of Lira District, was receiving her ARVs on schedule until the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Coupled with the restricted movement due to the lockdown, the 60-year-old can hardly find food, putting her health at risk.
Ms Amucu is among Ugandans across the country whose health conditions are deteriorating because of the impact of the pandemic. Other categories include people suffering from tuberculosis and high or low blood pressure, among others.
Some of these patients cannot access hospitals due to transport, stigma and hunger. Ms Amucu, who used to beg on the streets for food before the lockdown, is one of the 600 people enrolled on ARVs in Railways Division.
“Some of my friends have already died because of hunger caused by the lockdown. I am lucky to be alive. I request government and NGOs to come to our rescue,” she says.
The situation is worsened by the appalling hygiene conditions among such households. Despite government’s emphasis on hand-washing as a preventive measure against the Covid-19, some people living with HIV/Aids cannot afford the facilities.
“That means they are at a high risk of contracting Covid-19. I urge government to reach communities and appreciate the challenges they are facing,” Mr Hamza Okello Ogole, a social worker in Lira, says.
Mr Okello says social workers have been providing psychosocial support to households affected by HIV/Aids to ensure they adhere to the treatment.
Mr Samuel Silus Ogwang, the chairperson of finance, planning and administration at Lira Municipal Council, acknowledges that coronavirus has worsened the plight of people living with HIV/Aids.
“Hunger has led to poor adherence to treatment. We have a number of patients who are in dire need,” he says. There are more than 1.3 million people living with HIV/Aids in the country.
In Bugisu Sub-region, people with TB and HIV/Aids face similar challenges.
Mr Moses Wabala, the Butaleja District HIV/Aids focal point person, says some of their HIV/Aids clients, who were using motorcycles to pick ARVs, have been affected by the lockdown.
In Masaka District, people with disabilities were also dealt a blow because their caretakers can no longer travel to health facilities to get the drugs.
Mr Dick Bugembe, the chairperson of Masaka Association of Disabled Persons Living with HIV/Aids, an NGO, says the situation has forced many persons with disabilities to shun treatment. “It is hard to take the medicine without eating food,” he says.
Mr Richard Musisi, the executive director of MADIPHA, says they have secured some funds to support their members in Rakai and Bukomansimbi districts with food, face masks and soap, among other items.
Ms Florence Nambozo Mayoga, the Sironko Woman MP, says she asked the Ministry of Health to establish community drug distribution centres.
In Mityana District, more than 300 HIV/Aids patients have reportedly missed out on ARVs in the past two months.
Mr Peter Muwereza, the HIV/Aids focal point person, says the district is running out of ARVs due to the limited supply by National Medical Stores.
“We have been told that there are no ARVs and officials at the district are waiting for a consignment to come,” he says.
A recent district health report indicates that at least 15,000 persons living with HIV/Aids are on medication. Another 5,000 were put on treatment between July and December last year.
Dr Fred Lwasampijja, the district health officer, says they have secured motorcycles with the support from Mild May Uganda to deliver drugs, adding that all health centre IIIs will be stocked with ARVs.
Dr Emmanuel Ssekyeru, the medical superintendent of Kalisizo hospital in Kyotera District, says more than 200 patients suffering from high and low blood pressure and diabetes need medication.
“We can easily reach out to them (patients) to give them medication. We also meet them after every fortnight and in case of emergencies,” Dr Ssekyeru says.
In Kabale, Kanungu and Kisoro, authorities have emergency vehicles to transport people living with HIV/Aids, TB and high blood pressure.
Dr Stephen Nsabiyunva, the Kisoro District health officer, says drug distributors have also been stationed in sub-counties and parishes to reach out to patients.
In Kabarole District, more than 100 sex workers who are on ARVs, say they have stopped taking their medication due to lack of food.
“When bars and lodges were closed, I lost business. I have nowhere to get food from and if government does not come out to save us, we shall die because you cannot take ARVs without food,” a sex worker says.
In Arua District, the National Community of Women Living with HIV/Aids (NACWOLA) has been using phone tracking technology to reach their members.
“Our staff track the clients on phone and pick up drugs from health centres and deliver them at their homes,” Ms Donna Aseru, head of NACWOLA in Arua, says.
In Namutumba and Mbarara districts, health authorities say TB and HIV/Aids patient they have been skipping treatment due to lack of transport.
“Many have failed to honour appointment dates (schedule for collecting medicines) at health centre IIIs, health centre IVs and hospital,” Mr Eldard Nkabareeba, the coordinator for People Living with HIV/Aids in Mbarara, says.
By 2016, Uganda had an HIV prevalence of 6.2 per cent among adults aged between 15-49; an estimated 1.3 million adults and 96,000 children living with HIV (UNAIDS report 2016, UPHIA 2016-2017).
Government has been working with donors, institutions and civil society organisations to provide treatment. Of the 1.3 million people living with HIV, 1.1 million are accesss ART.
By Bill Oketch, Philip Wafula, Denis Edema, Alfred Tumushabe, Ronald Seebe, Felix Warom Okello, Scovia Atuhaire, Yahudu Kitunzi, Robert Muhereza, Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Ambrose Musasizi & Malik F Jjingo