If South Africa had given HIV/AIDS the same attention as we did to hosting the Soccer World Cup, we could have saved millions of lives, ANC Women’s League president Winnie Madikizela Mandela told some 3 000 people in Durban yesterday at an international march to demand cheaper HIV/AIDS drugs.

Instead, said Madikizela Mandela, we had allowed ourselves to become sidetracked “by Virodene and rightwing American scientists” although we could see the effects of AIDS in other African countries.

PAC MP Patricia de Lille told marchers that government should form partnerships with the private sector to ensure cheaper HIV drugs – rather than getting involved in the debate between dissident and orthodox scientists.

The march, the first of its kind in South Africa, marks the beginning of a campaign of community mobilisation for affordable HIV drugs and legal action against drug companies profiting from the epidemic, said Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) president Zackie Achmat.

“Every person by with a conscience should take action to stop what will become a holocaust against the poor,” said Achmat.

Achmat said government provision of the drugs AZT or Nevirapine for all pregnant HIV women was “non-negotiable”. He added that the government should issue a compulsory licence which would enable a generic version of the drug, Fluconazole (used for treating AIDS-related cryptococcal meningitis and thrush) to be produced. This could reduce its price from R86 to R4 per tablet.

The TAC was sceptical about Boehringer-Ingelheim’s recent offer to make Nevirapine available free of charge for the next five years, and called on the company to extend the offer to pregnant women in all developing countries as a treatment and not just to prevent them from transmitting HIV to their babies.

Constitutional court judge Edwin Cameron, who is HIV positive, said that he “should be dead by now” but was not because he “can afford to purchase my health”.

Cameron, who spends R2 550 a month on antiretroviral drugs, said South Africans should not accept AIDS deaths as a “sad reality” but should face the epidemic and fight for affordable drugs “through principled action”.

US AIDS activist Paul Davis said drug companies would not become humanitarian organisations, but that governments should pressurise them to make drugs affordable.

He suggested that the theme of the International AIDS Conference, which opened shortly after the march, should be “break the drug patents” rather than “break the silence”.- Health-e News