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Prison inmates starve to get ARVs -- Farook Khan -- July 19 2005

An emergency meeting is being planned to defuse tensions which arose at Westville Prison after 200 HIV-positive inmates are said to have gone on a three-day hunger strike for anti-retroviral treatment from Monday. Members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) are worried that the situation could reach boiling point in the prison as the cries for anti-retroviral medication grows louder.

According to Thembiso Derrick Mkhize, spokesperson for the TAC in Durban, three prisoners - Gift Ntombela, Xolani Ngcemu and Mark Ngubane - have been chosen to negotiate with the department of correctional services.

Graham Abrahams, spokesperson for Correctional Services Minister Ngconde Balfour, said there was no hunger strike at Westville. 'They flatly told the prisoners that they did not have money for anti-retrovirals' But Mkhize said his organisation was hoping to broker a deal which would pave the way for a meeting between the three prisoners and the department, and insisted that the prisoners are on a hunger strike. The prisoners were refusing all drink and food.

"Requests were made to the authorities at Westville Prison and they flatly told the prisoners that they did not have money for anti-retrovirals," said Mkhize. He said there were about 200 prisoners at Westville Prison who are HIV-positive.

Prof Jerry Coovadia, of the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, said the anti-retroviral campaign in KwaZulu-Natal was in full swing. He said treatment was based on criteria and that "marginal groups"
were not excluded. "This means that rural communities, prisoners and others must be treated fairly, like everybody else, when it comes to prescribing anti-retrovirals," said Coovadia. He pointed out that this did not mean that if there were 200 prisoners infected, all of them qualified for treatment.

Superintendent-General of Health in KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Ronald Green-Thompson, said the department of correctional services had its own health care facilities and guidelines. However, prisoners brought to provincial hospitals could be treated, depending on the specific circumstances, he said.

July 20, 2005
An emergency meeting has been called today between officials from correctional services and provincial health departments to look into a three-day hunger strike launched by 200 HIV-positive inmates at the Westville prison.

The prisoners say they are not receiving anti-retroviral treatment although they are eligible to receive the medication. Professor Umesh Laloo, of the Adult Aids Trials Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says prisoners have the right to health care. Laloo says government's introduction of the national roll-out of anti-retrovirals should apply to all people, regardless if they are prisoners.

Laloo says the prisoners should be viewed as anyone else who is HIV-positive and they should be afforded equitable access to treatment which extends to preventative measures, the management of complications caused by the virus and the access to a constant anti-retroviral treatment strategy.

Nonala Ndlovu, the KwaZulu-Natal prisons spokesperson, says their hands are tied as the process of administering anti-retroviral drugs to prisoners is done through the health department. Ndlovu says a lack of staff is also hampering efforts to teach prisoners about living with HIV/Aids. She says the few staff members who have been trained to counsel prisoners are battling to cope with the number of inmates in the province's 42 prisons.