The cost of living: young Burundians pay for friend’s surgery

As an orphan living with HIV Alberic had no one to help him with his emergency hospital fees, but then his friends stepped in.

When Alberic Karemesha, 19, from Rutana in Burundi, found out he was living with HIV in 2008, he was immediately put on antiretroviral treatment. But seven years later, Alberic found his life was in serious danger because he lacked the money to pay for emergency medical treatment.

In 2012, Alberic began to experience problems with anaemia. His condition worsened and he had a lot of abdominal pains. On 29 January 2015, he was evacuated to one of the largest hospitals in Bujumbura for medical examinations. He was diagnosed with a disease which was causing the anaemia and which required emergency surgery.

“I had a great fear when the doctor told me that it is an emergency, while I had spent a whole year with the disease,” said Alberic.

Alberic is an orphan which is a real problem in Burundi, especially for people living with HIV. This is because all hospitals, both public and private, ask for a deposit before treating any disease, especially if it requires surgery. As Alberic did not have any relatives to support him, he did not know how he was going to pay for his surgery.

“There was fear and total panic, but I tried to comfort him by reassuring him that everything would be okay,” said a friend who was caring for Alberic.

Peer support

Fortunately for Alberic, he is part of the RNJ+, the National Network of Young People Living with HIV. The members of the group had already rallied around Alberic to pay for his initial medical examinations. As his surgery drew closer, they stepped forward again.

On the day before the surgery, Alberic was unable to pay the deposit. As a result, his operation was rescheduled for the following day, on the condition that the deposit must be paid beforehand. If not, he was told, the operation would not take place.

In 24 hours, Alberic’s peers from RNJ+ gathered the money from monthly contributions they had saved in the bank, to pay for the deposit. They also paid for medication he needed during the operation. Finally, on 5 March, with the support of his peers who refused to let him down, Alberic underwent the surgery.

“We would not stay, arms crossed, and let our brother die,” said one of the young people from RNJ+, with tears in his eyes.

Insufficient funding

Despite financial support from a project called PRIDE to provide medical care for people living with HIV, public medical and social care services are still short of funds. Most of the time this means that the cost of surgery and related care is not covered and health services have to look for other ways to cover these costs.

One person living with HIV said that in this situation, people can die because they don’t have anyone to pay for the surgery they need. This horrible situation really affects them. The only way Alberic could pay for the surgery was with the support of his peers.

“Unfortunately, this project does not meet all the needs of patients,” said one health worker, who asked to remain anonymous.

In cases such as this, sometimes the Burundian government will step in and provide assistance. After his surgery, Alberic wrote a letter to the Ministry of National Solidarity requesting help. They agreed to give him support by paying all his outstanding costs, including medical examinations and drugs.

Health is a human right

Alberic is still in hospital but at least now he will not have to worry about who will pay for his care. The young people of the RNJ + are continuing to support him in other ways, mobilising each other to feed him daily. “We are passionate and motivated to give and share with our brother, because we would like others to do so for us,” said one member.

The life of a human being is precious. The health of an individual should be a right regardless of status, origin, ethnic or vulnerability. Alberic was lucky and now his health is safe. But there’s still a long way to go. Vulnerable people have died and others are dying now, just because they can’t afford medical care or lack money for a deposit for treatment by specialists.

Some people think that health is not a priority in African countries. And sometimes, in the face of other political challenges, our leaders forget that health is a human right. The health worker I spoke to said: “The government should remember that when people have good health they can work for their development and for their country as well.”

They should look for funds to support medical care – not only for people living with HIV but also for other vulnerable people in the country.

Read about a new vaginal ring bringing hope for women in the fight against HIV


  • comment-avatar

    Great article Dona! Really touching story of how people are suffering in the midst of affluence. I think they can try to raise money by using crowd-funding platforms like indiegogo.