In what seems to be a part of the pattern when it comes to progress in fighting AIDS worldwide, specifically in Africa, the little glimmer of hope offered by some good news is offset by the reality of what’s still needed to be done. Although the cost of much needed first line drugs has dropped and countries are coming up with innovative means of reaching their people, the number of people not receiving care still outnumbers those receiving care by as much as 90%.
Pregnant women and children are still horribly at risk. With only 15% of all children and 11% of all pregnant women worldwide receiving care, it’s hard to get excited by stories of small advancements being made. Even more depressing is that the region hardest hit, Africa, is still the region where care is the least adequate.
Ninety percent of children who have AIDS live in Africa, as do the majority of the two million pregnant women who suffer from the disease. Each of these women is a threat to pass the illness onto their children in the womb if they don’t receive pre-natal care.
One of the major reasons for the shortfall in treatment is that most countries in Africa simply lack the facilities to properly care for their people. In order for a pregnant woman to be treated, she has to be diagnosed. This means having access to a proper health care facility with a lab for processing test results. Even that isn’t adequate on it’s own because there still has to be continual care until the woman comes to term or she could still be infectious.
A similar situation exists for children in Africa. Half the babies born with AIDS die by the time they are two, but during those years their symptoms are impossible to distinguish from other diseases without testing. Unfortunately, the test for someone under eighteen months of age is complicated and expensive, which means most infants die untested, let alone treated.
These countries lack health care facilities because they depend on the International Monetary Fund for loans to keep their countries afloat. One of the conditions of being a loan recipient is that countries cut spending on social programs like health care.
Even though the number of people who are receiving medication has risen thirteen fold since 2003 (100,000 to 1.3million) it’s really only a drop in the bucket, especially when you consider these figures are based only on reported cases of AIDS. Fear of being diagnosed, ignorance of the facts, and the social stigma surrounding the disease keeps large numbers of people from being tested and the disease continues to spread close to unchecked.
The availability of less expensive first line retro viral drugs has probably been responsible for the majority of the gains made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in places like Africa. Problems still abound with ensuring people have access to the drugs they will need. The second line drugs, which people on long-term treatment need, are still priced out of reach for most African health care systems to afford.
In Canada, in spite of the fact that a previous government tried to create a law which would allow a country access to the drugs they need at generic prices, very little of the drug actually leaves the country to go where it’s needed. Not one pill has left Canada at all.
The problem is red tape and the incredible pressure put on governments around the world by the powerful brand-name pharmaceutical industry that is firmly against generic products. The way the system works is that a company producing a generic version, or even an adaptation of the patented drug, must receive permission from the owner of the patent to sell it – as if that were going to happen.
When the company with the generic version is turned down, it’s up to individual countries to apply for a special two-year permit to buy the generic brand. According to Richard Elliot, deputy director of HIV/AIDS Legal Network, this becomes a problem because a country will have to identify itself in the application.
Mr. Elliot continues by saying that every time a country has tried to force the issue in the last decade, they have been swarmed by the pharmaceutical industry and their buddy, the American Government. Mr. Elliot claims the American government simply threatens to cut off trade with any country that tries to make use of the compulsory license, effectively rendering the program and generic drugs useless.
The truly depressing thing is that in all this, there is proof that when the drugs are made available, and the systems are in place to administer them, they make a big difference in a short span of time. Because a few men have decided the money they make from controlling the drug is more important than the lives of millions of women and children, people will continue to die in huge numbers.
The current Canadian government’s health minister had the nerve to say the program wasn’t working because countries weren’t making requests to have patents waived. Of course it was a previous Conservative government that extended pharmaceutical patents to 25 years, but that wouldn’t have anything do with that comment would it?
Until governments around the world are prepared to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies and demand the International Monetary Fund stop insisting on decimating social programming in debtor nations, we will continue to fight a losing battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and other parts of the world. It’s not a war we can afford to lose. It’s not a war we should be losing, but we are being betrayed by our own side.