By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda is suffering a shortage of imported drugs to treat HIV victims due to a weak currency and insufficient foreign exchange but the government is raising funds to cover the shortfall, a senior finance ministry official said.
Health activists say about 240,000 patients on publicly funded treatment programmes are at risk because of the shortage, forcing them to take lower dosages or none at all.
Some activists said they were concerned the government was spending too much on measures designed to help them win presidential and parliamentary elections in February rather than on medicines. Officials denied the charge.
In Uganda about 1.5 million people, or about 4 percent of the population, is living with the HIV virus, of which about 820,000 receive antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs that help prevent the infection turning into full-blown AIDS.
"We're preparing to secure a loan of $200 million and we hope that will be able to plug the funding gap," Finance Ministry Permanent Secretary Keith Muhakanizi told Reuters on Tuesday, denying the state was neglecting HIV victims.
He said the depreciation of Uganda's shilling currency, which has lost almost 19 percent of its value against the dollar so far this year, had caused problems with financing drug imports.
Activists said the government had failed to release enough funds in the period October to December, leading to shortages. As well as affecting those on the drugs, others wanting to start treatment are being forced to wait, they said.
Alice Kayongo Mutebi, a regional policy and advocacy manager at AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said "drug holidays" - when a patient stops taking prescribed medication - could spur the development of drug-resistant HIV strains.
"Is government neglecting key priorities like health, education and procurement of life-saving commodities, splurging instead on (election) campaigns?" said Asia Russell, Uganda-based executive director at Health GAP, an HIV advocacy group.
"These questions have to be answered," she said.
Activists called for a protest this week to highlight the problem but police banned it. One officer said it was not necessary "since government is aware of the problem".
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, in office for nearly 30 years, and his ruling party are expected to sweep the polls in February, although he faces tougher competition than before.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)