Some 15,000 AIDS victims in Congo likely will die waiting for lifesaving drugs in the next three years, Doctors Without Borders warned Wednesday in a report describing "horrific" health care access.
About 85 percent of AIDS patients in need of anti-retroviral medication are not getting any, according to the organization known by its French acronym, MSF.
Medical coordinator Anja De Weggheleire said the estimate of 15,000 dead in three years is horrifying but represents only the tip of the iceberg since most victims don't even know they are infected.
"Many will die in silence and neglect," she said.
The doctors blamed Congo's government for giving little priority to fighting AIDS, and the withdrawal of donors. The leading supplier of ARV drugs in Congo, the Global Fund, is sharply reducing funding because countries that finance it have not kept their promises.
This pullback by donors "is directly threatening the lives of thousands of people in (Congo)," the statement added.
It called for Congo's government to meet its commitment to provide free treatment to people living with HIV and AIDS, and for donors to immediately mobilize resources "to ensure that patients waiting for ARV treatment are not condemned to die."
Congo's failure to address the crisis could be creating a generation of new AIDS patients.
MSF said only 1 percent of pregnant women infected with HIV have access to the drugs that prevent them passing on the virus to their babies. As a result, about one-third of exposed babies will be born with HIV, it said.
An excessively high number of AIDS patients arrive at the hospital with advanced illnesses and serious complications that create unacceptable suffering, all easily prevented with early ARV treatment, the doctors said.
"What I'm seeing in (Congo) has not existed elsewhere for years," De Weggheleire said. "The situation here reminds me of the time before any anti-retroviral treatment was available."
More than 1 million of Congo's 70 million people are estimated to be infected with the AIDS virus, with 350,000 of them in need of ARVs. Only 44,000 are receiving treatment, the doctors said, giving the Central African nation a coverage rate of just 15 percent, equal only to that of Sudan and war-torn Somalia on the continent.
Congo is still recovering from decades of dictatorship and back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2005. High levels of corruption have prevented the country's massive mineral wealth from being translated into better lives for its people.
MSF was the first organization to provide free ARV treatment in Congo, in 2003, and now treats more than 10 percent of all patients receiving the drugs in the country, including 20 percent of those on ARVs in Kinshasa, the capital.