BOGOTA (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday it will provide thousands of doses of HIV medication to treat Venezuelans in Colombia as part of regional efforts to manage care for millions of migrants fleeing the crisis-hit nation.
U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar told Reuters about the decision in a phone interview following a meeting this week of health officials from 10 countries in the Colombian border city of Cucuta.
The officials agreed to various measures meant to help the more than 4 million Venezuelans who have left home amid widespread shortages of food and medicine.
“When I was there I actually signed a letter of intent with minister of health Juan Pablo Uribe for the United States to be providing HIV antiretrovirals to Colombia for the use with Venezuelan refugees,” Azar said.
The United States will provide 12,000 doses, an HHS spokeswoman said, enough for a year’s medication for 1,000 migrants.
“We believe that its vital to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to treat those who have it because with appropriate treatment individuals who have HIV/AIDS can live healthy, long, productive lives,” Azar said.
Antiretrovirals are not a cure for HIV, but can help keep the virus at bay and lower the chance of transmitting the disease.
Many Venezuelans living with the virus that causes AIDS once received free medication. Supplies dried up as the economy unraveled, leaving patients to seek treatment abroad or resort to questionable home remedies.
The crisis presents a range of health challenges for countries taking in migrants, from patients with chronic conditions who have long lacked care to those needing emergency assistance.
In many hospitals along Colombia’s border, a majority of births are now to Venezuelan mothers, many of whom lacked pre-natal care.
Plans are also being made for rebuilding Venezuela’s healthcare system once President Nicolas Maduro is no longer in power, Azar said.
The United States is among more than 50 countries that recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as his country’s legitimate leader rather than Maduro.
Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume a rival presidency, saying Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent. Maduro alleges that Guaido is a puppet of the United States.
Unlike its neighbors, Colombia has not put in place stringent immigration requirements for Venezuelan migrants.
Colombia is home to some 1.4 million Venezuelans. Hundreds of thousands of others reside in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil and other countries.
(This story has been refiled to fix spelling of “States” in paragraph 5)
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Berkrot