December 1, 2008
Britain is criticised for deporting HIV patients
• MP says some people face virtual death sentence
• Government failing to support G8 drugs pledge
by Sarah Boseley
The government is today, on World Aids Day, accused of double standards for permitting the deportation of people diagnosed in the UK with HIV to countries where they may not get the drugs they need to stay alive.
The UK has strongly supported the G8 pledge to get treatment to all people who need it in poor countries, and yet it is sending back people who have discovered they have HIV and been put on drugs while in the UK, to places where they have little hope of continuing their medication.
The African HIV Policy Network, which is attempting to change UK policy, has many examples of people who are struggling to get hold of life-saving medication. Its campaign is supported by Neil Gerrard, the Labour MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and previously chaired the group on Aids.
"I think when you have got someone who has been put on treatment here and then they are removed back to a country where they can't get treatment, it is virtually a death sentence," he said.
Britain has heavily backed the G8 call for universal access to Aids drugs, as well as prevention and care, in the poorest countries of the world.
"We are doing some really good work and probably leading the field in terms of promoting better care and treatment internationally," said Gerrard. "To have that on the one hand and be sending somebody back knowing if they are not able to get treatment they will die, is a horrible contradiction."
Two years ago, Sitiwe, who prefers not to give her full name, lived in the UK and was on regular medication for HIV. She was able to go about her normal life without worrying that her health might suddenly deteriorate.
Last year she was deported to her native Zimbabwe. Now she goes to the only clinic that will supply her with the three-drug combination she needs and sometimes leaves empty-handed. She shares tablets with friends who are in the same predicament. If people with HIV do not take the tablets at the same time every day, there is a high risk the virus will become resistant to the medication and the drugs will no longer work.
"I tried to visit clinics but they couldn't take me on," she said from the home she shares with her son and granddaughter. "Finally I found this one.
"They said they would give me some medication but sometimes they don't give me all the combination. Sometimes I have to do without. It makes me very anxious. It is really scary. You don't know whether you are going to make it."
Allegations that people with HIV are seeking asylum in the UK solely to get medical treatment are false, says Gerrard. Figures from the Health Protection Agency last week showed people are arriving at their GP's surgery when their immune systems are compromised and they are at risk of dying.
It is not a long-term issue for the UK, said Gerrard. "If we are successful - and there has been some really solid progress in getting drugs available in sub-Saharan Africa - this is a short-term problem. We should reach a point where removing somebody for immigration reasons doesn't mean you are sending them to somewhere they will probably die."