A nurse waits for the result of an HIV test at the lab of the NGO "Accion Solidaria" (Solidarity Action) in Caracas, Venezuela, on November 28, 2018. Picture: REUTERS/MARCO BELLO
A nurse waits for the result of an HIV test at the lab of the NGO "Accion Solidaria" (Solidarity Action) in Caracas, Venezuela, on November 28, 2018. Picture: REUTERS/MARCO BELLO

As Venezuela’s hyperinflation and chronic medicine shortages leave HIV patients with little hope of obtaining antiretroviral drugs, many are now relying on the leaves of a tropical tree known as the guasimo.

For each dose, patients use about 50 leaves from the tree, which is often used for lumber and is also known as the West Indian elm, and run them through a blender with water. They then strain and drink the green liquid.

Doctors and patients alike have questioned the effectiveness of the remedy, which has for years been used in Venezuela and Brazil as a complement to pharmaceutical treatment.

But HIV patients hoping to ward off Aids increasingly see it as better than nothing.

“I have nothing to lose,” said one HIV-positive man as he prepared and drank the beverage, asking not to be identified because his co-workers are unaware of his diagnosis.

For years he received antiretrovirals provided for free by the state, but supplies dried up as the country’s socialist economic system unravelled. After five months of not taking medication, his doctor recommended the leaf concoction.

“My mind keeps telling me I’m going to die; I got into this situation because the government doesn’t provide medication,” he said.

Dr Carlos Perez began recommending the treatment at the start of 2018 when the shortage of antiretrovirals became acute. He tells patients to drink the guasimo-leaf beverage twice a day for a month.

“It is a complementary treatment,” said Perez, who is part of an organisation called Solidarity Action that helps provide care for HIV patients.

“[One] component of these leaves is tannin, a biochemical component that apparently has antiviral properties.”

The information ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the medicine shortages.

Antiretrovirals can generally only be bought abroad, and a month of treatment costs at least $85, the equivalent of nearly a year of minimum wage. Annual inflation reached 1.3-million percent in November.

The Venezuela office of the Joint UN Programme on HIV and Aids said Venezuela had 120,000 people who were HIV-positive as of 2016, 61% of whom were taking antiretrovirals.

The agency said it relies on the government for the data, adding it does not have any more updated information.

Some doctors insist the only real solution for HIV patients is for the government to create functioning policies that ensure the availability of medication.

“The state has failed in its obligations to ensure access to health care,” said Felix Oletta, a former health minister and member of a nonprofit group called Defending Epidemiology.

He added that the leaf beverage “does absolutely nothing, nor is it a treatment with any scientific backing”. — Reuters

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