KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Two years ago, Hryhoriy, a retired police officer from a provincial Ukrainian town, nearly died of AIDS. Yet the ghostly, emaciated father of two considers himself lucky because he eventually got treated at a Kiev clinic and is now slowly recovering.
Unlike the 53-year-old Hryhoriy, tens of thousands of fellow Ukrainians infected with HIV are not getting any treatment at all because the state says it doesn't have enough money.
A day before Elton John and Queen sing in the Ukrainian capital in a charity concert to raise AIDS awareness, advocacy groups are accusing the government of embezzling millions of dollars in corrupt drug tenders and thus depriving patients of vital treatment. They also say that with AIDS deaths up 20 percent since last year as a result of non-treatment, Ukraine can hardly afford to spend billions of dollars on hosting the Euro 2012 football championships ending Sunday.
Ukraine has one of Europe's biggest AIDS epidemics with about 1 percent of the adult population infected with HIV, the virus the causes AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. Ukraine is a leading recipient of aid from The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which covers about 10 percent of the country's needs, the rest coming from state coffers.
Of the estimated 450,000 Ukrainians who are HIV-positive, 70,000 require urgent treatment today. But only 28,000 are receiving it, leaving over 40,000 of patients without anti-retroviral therapy, which could greatly prolong their lives, according to WHO.
In a country where the state has declared its commitment to procuring HIV medication and providing treatment, those patients are left to the mercy of the disease.
"It's alarming. These figures definitely show that the country, the government and international organizations should pay much more attention," said Dr. Igor Pokanevych, head of the WHO Country Office in Ukraine. "More resources should be allocated to fight against AIDS in this country."
But advocacy groups charge that the government in fact has the necessary funds to treat all of its AIDS patients. They accuse Health Ministry officials of embezzling money that should be used to treat patients by buying AIDS drugs at hugely inflated prices and then pocketing kickbacks.
Pokanevych said that a complicated system of tenders for drug procurement allows the government to purchase drugs up to 5 times the market price. Had the drugs been purchased at a fair price, the government would have had the money to treat all those 40,000 patients who are left untreated today, Pokanevych said.
Dmytro Sherembey, an activist with the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV, a leading AIDS advocacy group in Ukraine, said his group recently purchased a package of an anti-retroviral drugs for 3.5 hryvna per tablet, while the government bought 14 million hryvna ($1.8 million or euro 1.4 million) worth of the same drug for 7.80 hryvna per tablet. He accused the Health Ministry of purchasing AIDS drugs from friendly middlemen companies and then pocketing millions of dollars in kickbacks.
"If a patient is not receiving vital drugs, in the end he dies," Sherembey said. "Corruption is a bulldozer that is destroying Ukrainians."
Health Ministry officials were not available for comment due to public holidays. Previously, the Health Ministry has denied accusations of corruption and insisted that major drug buyers like the Global fund, which paid for Sherembey's drug purchase, had better deals because they bought more.
Sherembey, who is now leading a campaign to get the government to earmark 400 million hryvna ($50 million or euro 40 million) for AIDS treatment and prevention for next year, says Ukraine should not have spent $6.4 billion on hosting Euro 2012, when tens of thousands of AIDS patients are at risk of dying without treatment.
"I also love football, I love many things, but I love life more," Sherembey said.