The work of Armenia’s sole medical center specializing in the treatment of HIV and AIDS was disrupted on Friday as 80 percent of its employees resigned in protest against the government’s decision to merge it with another clinic.
The Armenian Ministry of Health, which initiated the decision earlier this year, says that the Republican Center for the Prevention of AIDS must be incorporated into a Yerevan hospital which treats other infectious diseases, including the flu and similar viruses.
Health Minister Arsen Torosian insisted earlier in February that Armenia no longer needs a specialized HIV/AIDS clinic and that it now makes more sense to have all infectious diseases treated by a single medical institution. “The fight against AIDS must be integrated into the overall healthcare system,” he said.
The affected HIV/AIDS medics strongly disagree, saying the dissolution of their center, which has detected up to 450 cases of HIV annually in Armenia, would break up what they describe as a well-functioning system of preventing, tracking and treating the immunodeficiency disease.
“In three, four or five years from now we will have … an uncontrolled epidemic,” Arshak Papoyan, who heads one of the center’s divisions, claimed on Friday.
The government’s decision also sparked protests by many of the HIV-positive Armenians who receive free antiretroviral drugs and counseling at the center. Earlier this week, about 150 of them signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian urging him to reverse it.
The HIV/AIDS patients are particularly worried about Torosian’s intention to “decentralize” services provided by the Republican Center. That includes transferring the distribution of antiretroviral drugs from the center to regular policlinics across the country. According to Torosian, this will destigmatize HIV and AIDS and get people suffering from it out of social “isolation.”
HIV carriers counter that any breach of the confidentiality guaranteed by the center would only worsen discrimination encountered by them and the stigma associated with their disease. “None of us will go to a policlinic or the Nork hospital [in Yerevan,]” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
On Wednesday, Torosian fired the center’s longtime director, Samvel Grigorian, for his refusal to help implement the controversial merger. Just hours later, Grigorian’s deputy, Aram Hakobian, was briefly detained by police for allegedly refusing to hand the clinic’s official seal to Artur Berberian, its acting director appointed by the minister.
It emerged on Friday at least 86 of the 108 people working at the center have tendered their resignations in response to the government’s failure to meet their demand.
“The conditions that have been created by various Ministry of Health officials make our continued work impossible,” Hakobian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“It’s not about an individual, it’s about preserving a system,” said another senior HIV/AIDS medic, Janetta Petrosian.
Berberian deplored the mass resignations of the center’s staff. He warned that their “inactivity” could be deemed a criminal offense.