Deadly kala azar is still forgotten

Tomorrow, May 1, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will officially hand over its HIV/AIDS programme to the regional Ethiopian Bureau of Health, the government authority responsible for health in the Humera district of Ethiopia.

Occurring only three years after the humanitarian medical organisation started to provide free HIV/AIDS treatment for the first time in Ethiopia, MSF considers this development a success. However, kala azar, a fatal disease that is endemic in this area of the country, remains a concern for MSF, which is still the main organisation providing free treatment to patients affected by it.

Humera is an extremely isolated area of Ethiopia, where some 100,000 migrant workers converge during the planting and harvest seasons. Such a high influx of migrant workers also attracts large numbers of sex workers and consequently the possibility of HIV infection dramatically increases. In Humera, the average of patients tested HIV positive in MSF's facilities is currently about 13 per cent while the average in the country is estimated to be 4.7 per cent.

Today MSF has 750 patients on antiretroviral treatment (ART) in Humera and now the government of Ethiopia is ready and willing to take charge of them and continue providing the necessary medications free of charge. The Bureau of Health has recently shown its commitment to these patients by placing two new doctors and ten additional nurses in the local hospital.

"We are extremely happy about the Ethiopian government's fast reaction on HIV/AIDS," said Ivan Zenar, Project Coordinator for MSF's Humera project. "But we remain concerned that kala azar is still so completely neglected, despite the fact that is a deadly disease."

MSF had actually started to work in Humera in 1997 to help patients with kala azar, also called "black fever", a tropical disease that is transmitted by parasites and affects the immune system. The disease has a mortality rate of almost 100% while, with proper treatment, around 92 per cent of the patients can be cured. Last year in Humera MSF treated 657 patients for kala azar, of which 8.3 per cent died.

After handing over its HIV/AIDS programme, MSF will continue monitoring ART activities and treating people affected by kala azar in the endemic regions of Ethiopia.

However, the humanitarian organisation is also calling on the Government to put the necessary resources into properly fighting this deadly disease.