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Ministry under fire over Aids centre

Bongiwe Zihlangu

 

MASERU — The Ministry of Health has come under fire for allegedly reneging on an undertaking to prop up a collapsing HIV and Aids centre that treats 500 patients every month.

The Paballong HIV and Aids Centre in Berea is on the verge of closure after its sponsorship deal with the Kellogg Foundation, an American aid organisation, ended last year.

Since Kellogg Foundation’s grant ended the centre has been battling to get critical anti-retroviral drugs and other necessities.

There are now fears that unless it gets urgent government assistance it might close.

The government had promised, when Paballong was launched in 2006 as a private initiative, to assist the centre once the US$400 000 sponsorship from the American organisation ended.

A report by the parliamentary HIV and Aids Select Committee alleges the government has reneged on its promises to bail out the ailing centre.

The report, presented in parliament on Thursday, says the Ministry of Health had not included the centre in its 2010 budget allocations for health centres.

It also says Health Minister Mphu Ramatlapeng had said the government was already supporting other health centres and that did not “leave any room to financially include the Paballong HIV/Aids Centre”.

“She said it is true that Paballong Trust has made several attempts to get assistance from the ministry,” the report says.

“She however said assistance was sought while there were many other clinics which had requested the same kind of assistance.

“And, as a result, the centre could not be helped due to budget constraints.”

Ramatlapeng, the report says, had told the committee that although the ministry had an arrangement to supply the centre with ARV drugs for eligible people in the Berea Plateau it was not possible for it to give more support as that would amount to misappropriation of funds.

“The committee also recommends that the centre and the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the minister of finance work on a comprehensive MoU document to enable the health ministry to fully support the centre,” the report says.

Education Minister ‘Mamphono Khaketla, who was holding fort for Ramatlapeng who is said to be in Geneva, told parliament on Monday that Paballong was a private institution.

“It is similar to one opening a private school and then later when there is an overflow of students demands that government supplies you with teachers, books and food. Is that right?” Khaketla said.

“I hear members of this committee going on and on about how the health minister pledged to help the centre when it was opened.

“Government always pledges help when institutions such as schools and which are above board request our presence for their official openings.

“But that does not mean government is obliged to cough up money for the continued existence of the schools.”

The committee’s chairperson and MP for the Taung constituency, Keketso Rants’o, said it would be unfortunate if the centre is left to collapse.

“If Paballong is not rescued, it means all people who rely on the centre for medical services will be left stranded,” Rants’o said.

“It would also mean patients will have to seek services from the already crowded hospitals in Maseru and Teyateyaneng.

“That would be adding pressure to the already struggling establishments.”

Another member of the parliamentary HIV and Aids committee, Sello Maphalla, told this paper that he had a strong suspicion the health ministry was “playing hide and seek” on the issue.

He said the government was “turning a blind eye on the pledge of support the minister made to the centre in 2007”.

“They say that the centre is private and can therefore not enjoy the government support other health centres get,” Maphalla said.

“It will also mean we are defying our obligation to the Universal Access to ARTs declaration which Lesotho ratified in 2001.”

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