A non-governmental organisation has approached the Manipur High Court seeking contempt action against central and state health officials for not ensuring the supply of antiretroviral drugs required for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

The organisation, Community Network for Empowerment, filed the petition on July 18. The petition seeks the enforcement of a High Court order from August 29, 2019, that had directed the Centre and the Manipur government to provide medicines and treatment in an affordable and efficient manner to persons living with the acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The condition is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

The NGO sought contempt action against Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, Manipur Additional Chief Secretary V Vumlunmang and the project director of the State AIDS Control Society Rosita Haobam. It claimed that the officials willfully disobeyed the court order.

According to the NGO, the supply of antiretroviral drugs to HIV patients has been stopped since the last week of May. It said that due to the shortage of the drugs at the State AIDS Control Society, HIV patients were being forced to buy the medicines from the market.

The petition stated that there are currently 13,688 persons in Manipur taking antiretroviral treatment. Out of these, 575 persons are taking second line treatment, while seven persons are taking third line treatment, the NGO said.

The petition said that the failure of the officials to supply antiretroviral drugs was a “clear case of willful disobedience and contempt of the Honourable Court” and contended that the officials were liable to be punished under the Contempt of Courts Act.

“If the respondents are not dealt with seriously for their willful disobedience of [the order], they will further be encouraged to disrespect and disobey the directives of this Honourable Court,” the petition said.

Health ministry’s response

Since July 21, a group of HIV patients has been protesting outside the National AIDS Control Organization’s office in Delhi against the shortages of antiretroviral drugs required for their treatment. They have blamed the government for the delay in the procurement of the medicines.

The National AIDS Control Organization, or NACO, is a central government agency that provides medicines, diagnostic kits and training to treat HIV patients.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told Scroll.in on Tuesday that a meeting was held with HIV infected people protesting outside the NACO office on Monday.

“They were informed about the position regarding drugs availability and they were told to jointly work with state AIDS control societies and NACO for the availability of drugs at those few ART [antiretroviral therapy] centres which were running short on supplies, temporarily,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the Central Medical Services Society has been requested to supply the first lot of the drugs at the earliest.

Hari Singh, one of the protestors, said the government had asked them to call off the protest. “But since supply of drugs has not resumed, we continue to sit outside NACO in protest,” he added.

India has roughly 14.5 lakh people with HIV who require daily antiretroviral drugs.

In December 2021, NACO asked all states to procure certain drugs after it failed to choose a bidder and give purchase orders. Among crucial drugs that it failed to procure was dolutegravir, a relatively new medicine that reduces viral load rapidly. At least 50,000 patients require dolutegravir. Other such drugs are lopinavir and ritonavir, which are used for first and second-line treatment.

An unidentified official from NACO told Scroll.in that the organisation issued a letter of intent on June 24 inviting companies to submit details of when drugs could be supplied. Under this process, it may take another two to three months for the supplies to come.