Sat, Sep 20, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Activists plead for more help to fight AIDS in Africa

PANDEMIC A plan to improve access to generic drugs could leave poor countries, without the means to make their own drugs, at the mercy of richer exporting countries


AIDS campaigners say that the billions of dollars pledged to fight the killer disease in Africa are not enough to subdue the pandemic, and that a landmark deal last month on access to generic drugs falls far short of the needs of the devastated continent.

Activists, speaking ahead of Africa's 13th International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, which starts in Nairobi tomorrow, welcomed the agreement at the WTO in Geneva late last month to make it easier for poor countries to buy cheap versions of brand-name medicines, but said major problems remained.

More than three million people -- 600,000 of them children -- died of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa last year, according to UN figures, and the future looks bleak, with life expectancy tumbling and men and women in their 30s and 40s being wiped out, leaving frail grandparents to care for the children.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria expects to disburse close to US$5 billion during 2002-2004, and US President George W. Bush has pledged US$15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean over the next five years.

But Jonathan Berger, a South African researcher at the AIDS Law Project, based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said the Geneva deal still left poor importing countries, which could not make their own drugs, at the mercy of richer exporting countries.

"It still requires that compulsory licences must be issued in both importing and exporting countries. The problem is that even when a country which desperately needs the drugs issues a compulsory licence to import them, it is up to the exporting country to do the same," he said.

"In many countries with a capability to manufacture generic drugs and export them, their patent laws may not provide for export of products under compulsory licenses, or may not allow for such licenses to be issued, or the political will may not exist."

Rwanda's secretary of state in charge of the prevention of AIDS, Innocent Nyaruhirira, said access to anti-retroviral drugs would draw people to clinics.

"When there is no motivation, people are not interested in being tested or going for counselling," he noted.

Currently, anti-AIDS treatment in Rwanda costs around US$35 per month, against US$700 in 1999.

"But the cost remains too high," he said, underscoring the poverty of a continent where many people exist on less than US$1 a day.

But Kenya Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines spokeswoman Beryl Leach said the Geneva agreement would make it difficult for developing nations to promote their own pharmaceutical industries and manufacture generic drugs.

In Zimbabwe, where 2,500 people are reported to be dying of AIDS every week, health professionals and AIDS activists said the Geneva deal was welcome, but might not be effective if other factors affecting poor countries were not addressed, such as shortages of health workers, and provision of clean water and electricity.

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