The war in North Ethiopia has disrupted the health services and logistical supply chains which tens of thousands of people living with HIV depend on for survival. Particularly in Dessie, a town in South Wollo Zone, over 400 outpatients with HIV, who’ve been using antiretroviral drugs, are now reported to be “missing”.
According to the Dessie Health Office, more than 13,000 people live with HIV in Dessie. Among them, 12,024 patients were taking daily medication. 15 health facilities, six government health centers and nine private medical institutions offered HIV treatment, prevention and care services before the war broke out in September 2021.
Sister Wubejig Workneh, Infectious and Non-Communicable Diseases Control Officer at Dessie City Administration, said: “After the war ended, only 6,819 drug users returned to us while 5,205 patients didn’t.”
Sister Wubejig said strenuous efforts have been made through community networks, including telephone calls and appeals through religious leaders, to reach out to the missing patients. Their efforts have paid off and now 11,492 patients are taking their medication properly.
“After we did an investigation, we found out that 35 of our outpatients have died during the war. One patient has refused to continue the treatment while 86 have moved to another place. 410 people are still missing and we are trying to find them,” said the officer.
With the first confirmed case of AIDS in Ethiopia dating back to 1978, currently an estimated number of 753,100 people live with HIV, according to the data from the Ministry of Health. A lack of access to antiretroviral therapy and prevention services would mean a wave of deaths and risk a resurgence of the disease in the country, said Sister Wubejig.
The human immunodeficiency virus causing AIDS destroys certain blood cells known as T-cells or CD4 cells that help the body fight off infection. As there is no cure for the disease, there are treatments to prevent or treat opportunistic infections. These treatments, including antiretroviral drugs, have dramatically extended and improved lives. HIV patients in and around Dessie have also been benefiting from these treatments.
Hirut (not her real name), an HIV patient who lives in Dessie, told us her greatest challenge during the war was accessing antiretroviral drugs. “I only had medication for three days when the war started. After I finished them, I went to the hospital looking for resupply. But all health facilities were closed and I couldn’t take the drugs for two months,” she said.
Hirut said she was fine for a while apart from being nervous of not getting the medications. She had even gone farther to deciding not to take the medications any more as she was surviving well without them. She was one of those who didn’t go back to the health facilities soon after the war ended.
“My health gradually deteriorated and I became ill. I started having fever, cough, vomiting and diarrhea,” she said. That’s when she went back to the medical center.
Molla Mehretu, another HIV patient living in Dessie, stated that he had been taking antiretroviral drugs for several years in a row, strictly without interruption, until the war reached Dessie. “I didn’t have any spare drugs when the conflict broke out. So I was forced to stop using medication,” he said.
It wasn’t long after he stopped taking the medicines when he caught pneumonia and then Tuberculosis because of his weakened immunity system.
“Since I couldn't access the pills, I started using alternative therapies like home remedies. But they were ineffective,” Molla said. He got a sore throat, severe cough, and suffered a lot. It was after the war ended he was able to go to the hospital where he was diagnosed with TB.
“Stopping the treatment was very dangerous. I was very ill and the pain even made me consider suicide. I have no family and live alone. That was the worst part,” he said.
Hirut and Molla said not accessing the antiretroviral drugs had dire consequences to their health even long after they started using them again. They recalled the physical and psychological stresses they went through during the conflict that took weeks. Both of them said they were grateful the conflict soon ended and they could access medication afterwards. They now wonder about patients who have different diseases still living in warzones and what they could be going through. Both shared their hopes that peace will soon prevail in the country.
The Infectious and Non-Communicable Diseases Control Office of Dessie City Administration is still looking for the missing patients using all means.