SOUTH AFRICA: HIV-POSITIVE FOREIGNERS GETTING A ROUGH DEAL IN COUNTRY

AllAfrica.com/Business Day, 3 April 2007

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HIV-positive foreigners living in SA are discriminated against by health professionals, according to Francois Venter, president of the HIV Clinicians' Society. Venter said xenophobia was "a huge problem" that extended to the professional clinicians in government's health facilities. Medical staff, he alleged, were restricting refugees' and asylum- seekers' access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Venter was speaking on Friday at the launch of a publication by the society that deals with the ARV treatment of refugees. The welfare of refugees in this country has been neglected, said Venter, especially in government budgets. Lobby groups have urged the government to ensure that refugees be assisted in gaining access to the health care system. Venter said specific guidelines for the treatment of HIV-positive refugees should be developed. They should be aimed at educating health professionals and non-government organisations. Venter said many health practitioners were not willing to overcome cultural differences and language barriers because they viewed refugees as short-term residents. They believed that HIV positive foreigners came to South Africa because of the availability of antiretroviral drugs. "Myths are perpetuated by health-care staff," he said. The director-general of the health department, Thami Mseleku, said health-care professionals were "also human" and "susceptible to the prejudices found in society". But there were many health-care professionals who provided services to people regardless of their origin. Mseleku said clinicians and other health professionals were guided by "the constitution of our country, which guarantees the right to health care for all". They were also guided by their own non-discriminatory "training and ethics", and by the code of practice of their profession. The senior regional HIV/AIDS coordinator for the United Nations's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Laurie Campbell Bruns, said: "We cannot ethically or otherwise deny treatment (to refugees) on the premise that they might not be here in the future." She says it is important that access to antiretroviral drugs be extended to everyone in SA. Celicia Serenata, a specialist at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US, said: "The treatment of refugees has not been addressed adequately. I am keen to see the wide distribution of the (HIV Clinicians' Society's) guidelines." Venter said people who were turned away from clinics were forced to buy antiretroviral drugs in the private sector but then did not benefit from the counselling that was mandatory in the public sector. "In private practice, people often club together to buy drugs," he said. He said it was time health-care professionals treated HIV-positive people regardless of their immigration status. "It's probably far cheaper to treat them than to have them die in our hospitals."