HIV patients in Malta have been left without critical medicine as the country’s supply of HIV medicine abruptly dried up.
Patients on treatment, which requires them to take the cocktail of pills every day without fail to be effective, told Lovin Malta they felt lost, after being turned away from hospital and pharmacies across the island because they didn’t have the drugs.
“They left me without HIV medication. I have no idea what I’m going to do,” one patient John*, a Maltese man, told this newsroom.
John explained that before, HIV medications were only administered from Mater Dei Hospital, but now patients can access it from any pharmacy. However, currently neither have stock.
“For the past four weeks Mater Dei’s pharmacy has been giving limited doses of medication due to these limitations,” John continued, adding that a lack communication between the hospital and pharmacies meant he was left in limbo and missing several days of treatment.
“When I went to collect pills from the pharmacy, they asked me to speak with my doctor as the process has changed. I was assured that certain pharmacies had one to two days of stock left. Still, I ended up running between hospital and pharmacies who had no idea about this new procedural changes, nor did they have any stock whatsoever.”
“The whole point with HIV treatment is not to miss a single pill, which I have now done multiple times.”
This isn’t even the first time he had been left without the critical drugs this year.
“It has happened towards the beginning of the year too. Officials don’t even bother to inform us patients about this. At that time, I could have taken precautions and bought them from abroad. But money can’t save us now.”
John explained that officials told him the shortages were due to procedural changes due to Brexit, but he warned patients couldn’t be left to take the brunt of it.
“After countless phone calls between different people and entities, all I know is that I might get eventually get the medication,” he continued, adding he might have to miss an up-coming flight for a funeral because of these delays.
“Fighting for my rights when I should be grieving shouldn’t happen in the European Union in 2020. My health has also been jeopardised, and I don’t take this lightly.”
HIV activists in Malta have previously warned of the looming crisis involving HIV and sexual health.
Currently, treatment for HIV in Malta is an outdated cocktail of drugs. And while the Health Ministry has pledged to introduce the latest medicine on the market for HIV-positive people, the new drugs are yet to hit the market.
Treatment costs anywhere between €40 a day, which is currently covered by the state. However, protecting yourself is not and can be costly. PrEp, for example, costs €57 a month and must be taken daily. Contraceptive pills cost around €20 a month. These are currently unavailable to those who can’t afford them because there is no state-sponsored scheme for such medicines.
Meanwhile, HIV activists warn the national sexual health clinic is a “ticking time bomb”.
Less than 2% of people in Malta got tested last year at the GU clinic. This is highly concerning considering STDs are on the rise with five people a month diagnosed with HIV.
COVID-19 has halted regular testing for sexual diseases, HIV Malta warned, but problems of over-stretched resources and a low-head count at the clinic existed before the pandemic, despite a pledge by Health Minister Chris Fearne to double the amount of GU clinic staff.
Gozo doesn’t even have its own sexual health clinic.
With such low testing rates, the true figure of those with HIV and other sexual diseases is unclear. And, while more testing would consequently mean more diagnoses, diagnoses remain high despite fewer people getting checked.
They called for a watertight strategy to tackle the crisis head-on, starting with a “long-needed” upgrade at the GU clinic, better access to treatment and sexual education.
This and more could be address in a fresh sexual health policy, which currently hasn’t been updated in a decade, which the Health Ministry insisted will see a first draft come March 2021. However, patients like John cannot wait for months for such critical medicine.
Lovin Malta reached out to the Health Ministry about HIV medication shortage but received no reply at the time of writing.
*Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity
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