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With no antiretrovirals, Venezuela HIV patients rely on leaf remedy

CARACAS (Reuters) – 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.

An HIV-positive man adds water to a blender with leaves of the tropical tree guasimo in Caracas, Venezuela, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

For each dose, patients use around 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 unraveled. 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 organization 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 purchased 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 United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS said in an email that Venezuela had 120,000 people who were HIV positive as of 2016, 61 percent 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.

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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 healthcare,” said Dr. Felix Oletta, a former health minister and member of a non-profit group called Defending Epidemiology.

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

Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Liamar Ramos, Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.