Wednesday, March 12, 2014

HIV drugs plus gender inequality equals non-adherence

Initiatives to increase access to essential medicines in developing countries is, of course, a good thing. It is the building of a lifeline. However, in settings challenged by the legacy of colonialism, hampered by unfair trade policies, and marked by poverty and oppression, it is no small feat to get the right drugs to patients and increase the number of patients served. It is a continuous struggle against the obstacles posed by transport and logistics, bureaucratic administrations, weak health care infrastructure, political inertia and the machinations of global pharmaceutical companies. And it is well-known that once the patients finally get the drugs, the struggle is not at all over. There are still problems of 'adherence', which at first sight may look like mere psychological unwillingness or carelessness in regard to compliance with a drug regime. On closer inspection, 'adherence problems' are really problems in integrating the taking of medication within the life-world of the patient. For one or another reason, it does not fit.

I recently saw a striking news item reminding me of the social complexity that stands behind 'non-adherence.' Apparently a significant number of men in Uganda, living with HIV but not open about their status, are taking medications from their HIV-positive female partners. When antiretroviral treatment was first being rolled out in Africa, I recall anecdotal reports of patients sharing their medicines with those without access to treatment. There the motive behind sharing was understandable and admirable -- a matter of human solidarity -- though the practice was dangerous as it meant improper dosing for all involved. The Ugandan case is different: the men probably would have access to treatment if they declared their status and appeared at clinics (apparently this is not just a Ugandan phenomenon). And this is stealing, not sharing, apparently facilitated in some cases by gender-based violence. So this is a new way of being 'non-compliant': having an aggressive partner unable to come to terms with his own HIV diagnosis.  

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