NEW DELHI - India could run out of a critical medicine in its free HIV/AIDS drugs programme in three weeks due to bureaucratic bungling, a senior government official said, leaving more than 150,000 sufferers without life-saving drugs for about a month.
Missed dosages for long durations can increase patients' drug resistance and result in faster spread of the virus, while changes in medication regimens expose patients to side effects.
The supply crunch will be an embarrassment for the four-month-old government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised to deliver more affordable and better health services.
As drugs in the open market are expensive, the government provides more than one-third of India's 2.1 million HIV/AIDS patients with free antiretroviral drugs that are procured from pharmaceutical companies via a tender process.
Delays in approving such tenders has left the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) scrambling to secure supplies of tenofovir/lamivudine tablets that are prescribed to thousands of patients during initial stages of treatment.
"We are also fed up. What to do? There are so many bureaucratic hurdles. The file goes to so many tables, and so many comments," NACO Deputy Director General A.S. Rathore told Reuters.
Several sources, company executives and documents seen by Reuters revealed that a tender for the medicine was approved last week, but supplies normally take at least 60 days to reach patients, which in this case would take it to late November.
NACO had raised the demand in January, Rathore said.
Patients and activists complained of shortages of several HIV drugs in September, forcing one group to send a legal notice to the health secretary, Lov Verma. Verma directed NACO to take stock of the programme and told Reuters on Sept. 4 that the situation was not as grave as activists described.
However, Rathore said on Tuesday that the programme had only 1.6 months of tenofovir/lamivudine tablets in stock on Sept. 4. That means, supplies will run out in about 20 days from now.
As of Sept. 24, 10 states had less than a month of stocks of such tablets, data available on NACO's website showed.
NACO is now leaning on companies - including Aurobindo Pharma (ARBN.NS: Quote, Profile, Research), one of the manufacturers that has been awarded the contract - to help avert a crisis.
Asked about the consequences if supplies run out, Rathore said: "If they don't give medicines, we can't make medicines, we can't do anything. If stocks won't be there, they won't be there."
India had the third-largest number of people living with HIV in the world at the end of 2013, according to the UN AIDS programme, and it accounts for more than half of all AIDS-related deaths in the Asia-Pacific. In 2012, 140,000 people died in India because of AIDS.
The government has been providing free antiretroviral drugs for HIV treatment since 2004, but only 50 per cent of those eligible for the treatment were getting it in 2012, according to a report by the World Health Organisation.