NGOs can help provide meds for Venezuelan refugees with HIV living in Colombia

The authors of a new white paper call for greater involvement of non-governmental organizations to address the HIV crisis among Venezuelan refugees living in Colombia.

The lead authors of the paper, Dr. Stevan Weine, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Global Health, and Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, a non-profit that provides health care to people affected by global humanitarian crises, say that local hospitals in Colombia don’t have enough HIV drugs to treat refugees living with HIV. They suggest that NGOs, including UN agencies, the Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization and Colombian authorities can help acquire and distribute these drugs and provide education and prevention programs to stop the spread of the virus.

Recent political conflict and a severe economic downturn in Venezuela has caused its once robust public health system and social programs to collapse, leaving residents without access to food, shelter or medical care and resulting in a massive humanitarian crisis. Large numbers of Venezuelans have fled their home country, with many of them going to neighboring Colombia.

The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that almost 1.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants now live in Colombia.

While Colombia has gone to great lengths to keep its borders open and provide services to refugees, their systems are taxed by the influx of people, Weine explained. There are an estimated 2,000 Venezuelans living with HIV in Colombia today, two-thirds of those under the age of 35.

In Venezuela, people with HIV have access to free antiretroviral therapy, but if they enter Colombia as refugees there are lots of factors working against their continuing treatment, Weine explained. In Colombia, people with HIV can get free medications only if they are documented migrants, but systems for documenting new migrants are overwhelmed, he said.

In 2017, about half of all people living with HIV in Colombia were receiving free antiretroviral therapy. Refugees who have not been documented may have to pay close to $95 per month for HIV drugs, which is nearly impossible for most refugees.

Additionally, fewer and fewer refugees live in camps. “Providing health care to refugee populations in general, including those in Colombia, is much harder because they live dispersed throughout the community,” Weine said. “Also, local hospitals just don’t have the supply of antiretroviral drugs needed to treat the high numbers of incoming refugees living with HIV.”

That’s where NGOs can step in to help, he said.

“NGOs and inter-governmental agencies working together can help fill in gaps among local hospitals and health care agencies by providing antiretroviral drugs and following up with patients in ways that local hospitals just don’t have the capacity for,” said Weine. These agencies can also provide education and prevention services to stop the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as much-needed testing and counseling, explained Sahloul, who is a graduate of the UIC College of Medicine (’96).

Sahloul’s organization, MedGlobal, has recently opened a clinic in Villa del Rosario, Colombia, near the Simon Bolivar bridge — a main point of entry for Venezuelan migrants to Colombia. Working in collaboration with MedCare, a local Colombian NGO, MedGlobal’s clinic provides health care to Venezuelan migrants.

“There is a humanitarian medical crisis in Colombia and neighboring countries, and we have to work together in the global health community to address it and increase the resiliency of the host communities,” Sahloul said.

Volunteer health care providers from the UIC College of Medicine and students and staff from UIC and its Center for Global Health will also work in the MedGlobal clinic.  

Dr. Denisse Valarejo of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Miami and Nicole Gonzalez and Dr. Max Brito of UIC are co-authors of the white paper.

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