BY VENERANDA LANGA/PHYLLIS MBANJE

HEALTH minister Obadiah Moyo has told Parliament that Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) drugs, whose side effects cause abnormal fat distribution in patients’ bodies, were no longer in use in the country as more effective regimens were being administered.

Moyo revealed this in a ministerial statement issued on his behalf in the National Assembly on Thursday last week by Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation minister Kirsty Coventry.

The Health ministry has over the years successfully rolled out the ART programme with over 1,1 million people receiving the life-prolonging medication.

The Health Committee had demanded that the minister issue a statement in the House on anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs shortages and alleged issuance of expired drugs.

“We select the best available ARV regimens for people living with HIV in Zimbabwe, based on their safety, availability in the global market and cost,” Moyo said.

“We have abnormal distribution of fat among people living with HIV as one of the side effects of some ARVs that were used during the earlier years when the ART programme was introduced in Zimbabwe and these medicines that include stophavine and donus were phased out of our national programme some years back and, therefore, we stopped buying these drugs,” he said.

Moyo said the Health ministry had introduced a new drug called dolutegravir (DTG), which has fewer side effects.

“DTG is effective and causes a rapid treatment response with evidence of viral suppression. The ministry will continue to mobilise resources to ensure that the best ARV medicines are available to all that are in need of them. The ministry advises lifestyle changes including low fat diets, regular exercise and cessation of smoking,” he said.

“We normally adapt treatment recommendations from the World Health Organisation as advised by the multi-disciplinary team of experts from our own Zimbabwe National Medicines and Therapeutic Policies Advisory Committee.”

Norton MP Temba Mliswa demanded that Moyo must personally avail himself in Parliament so that MPs can ask follow up questions instead of sending Coventry to issue the statement on his behalf.

In a related matter, Indian pharmaceutical firm Cipla has come up with a strawberry-flavoured, four-in-one ARV drug for pediatrics which costs less than a dollar per day.

Treating HIV in children has been a challenge because the drugs come as hard pills or bitter syrups, which have proved to be kids and babies unfriendly.

However, quadrimune, a pleasantly tasting, heat-stable medicine is currently under review by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in children between 3kg and 25kg bodyweight.

Commenting on the development, director for the AIDS and TB unit in the Health ministry Owen Mugurungi said it was the ideal option.

“This is what we have always preferred. A dispersible tablet which makes it easier for the young ones to take. We welcome this development,” he said.

The quadrimune was developed in partnership by Cipla and the not-for-profit Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) with financial support from Unitaid and other donors.

If it receives FDA tentative approval in 2020, the drug will represent a major improvement in the treatment of HIV in young children and will replace older, bitter-tasting medicines, medicines requiring refrigeration, or regimens that are no longer recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Bernard Pécoul, executive director of DNDi said: “Mothers were often forced to bury the syrup in the sand to keep it cool, because it required refrigeration.”

It is estimated that 1,8 million children are living with HIV, almost 90% of them living in sub-Saharan Africa. Only an estimated 54% of these children have access to HIV treatment and over 300 children are dying from the disease every day.

“We still have challenges in access to treatment for some children. Their guardians or foster parents may not be forthcoming in presenting the children to get tested and be out on treatment,” Mugurungi made an impassioned plea for guardians to seek treatment for the children.