World doctors support effort to get AIDS drugs to the poor

The World Congress of Family Doctors (WONCA) committed itself yesterday (Tuesday) to ensuring that affordable anti-retroviral drugs are available to HIV positive people in poor countries.

“WONCA has a political responsibility to support the efforts of the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS [in getting cheaper anti-retroviral drugs],” WONCA president-elect Dr Michael Boland told his organisation’s 16th congress in Durban yesterday. (Tuesday)

“We need to direct our response to governments, especially those in the G7 countries, to see a resolution to the issue that protects the pharmaceutical industry but ensures that treatment is available in the developed world,” said Boland.

Leading South Africa scientist Professor Jerry Coovadia, also addressing the congress, said the recent price reduction to a dollar a day for anti-retroviral treatment brought hope to HIV positive South Africans.

“Two years ago, I was not interested in anti-retroviral treatment, other than to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, because it was so expensive,” said Coovadia. “But now, at a dollar a day, treatment is now a possibility if offered in safe and monitored schemes.”

Coovadia said he was also heartened by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan’s commitment to raising $7-billion a year for the next five to 10 years to address AIDS, malaria and TB in the developing world.

“It is unprecedented to ask for such sums,” said Coovadia. “Realistically, this will only come from the USA and Europe. But the Bush administration’s offer this week of $200 million is peanuts. It will not address the crisis.”  

Boland appealed to WONCA’s 150 000 member doctors to support Brazil, which is being threatened with trade sanctions for offering free generic, anti-retroviral drugs to its HIV positive citizens – in apparent violation of the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Trade and Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.  

“We need to join other organisations in calling on the WTO to resolve the situation where Brazil is penalised for doing what is absolutely right,” said Boland, pointing out that Brazil’s intervention had halved the AIDS death rate and reduced AIDS-related hospitalisation by 80%.

“People in the developed world have a poor idea of the scale of the disaster [posed by HIV/AIDS] in the developing world,” added Boland. “They understand it better when you tell them more people are likely to die of AIDS than those killed in both world wars.”

Coovadia warned that “the epidemic is new and emerging and the worst is yet to come”. He pointed out that 15-year-old South Africans now faced a staggering 50% chance of dying of AIDS.

Professor Helen Rees of Wits University’s the Reproductive Health Research Unit said interventions aimed at stemming HIV had to address gender inequality if they were to succeed.

Rees also appealed to the medical fraternity to conduct more research into contraceptive methods that women could use discreetly to protect themselves against HIV infection, such as the female condom and microbicides (a vaginal gel).

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