Free diflucan offer extended to least developed nations

Diflucan (fluconazole), an expensive anti-fungal medicine, will be offered at no charge to HIV/AIDS patients in the 50 least developed countries identified by the United Nations, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced in New York on Wednesday (6 June 2001).

The announcement comes several months after the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) successfully pressurised Pfizer into making the drug freely available in South Africa for specified HIV/AIDS related infections.

While Diflucan is not a treatment for HIV/AIDS, it has proven highly effective in treating two opportunistic infections ‘€“ cryptococcal meningitis and oesophageal candidiasis – that afflict large numbers of people living with AIDS.

The drug is not available free of charge to woman with vaginal thrush.

Diflucan began reaching patients earlier this year through the South African Partnership Programme.

To date, 185 institutions in South Africa are distributing the drug through the programme.

Pfizer said discussions about the expanded partnership programmes have now begun with five additional countries – Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland.

“Together with our partners at the UN and the WHO, we are moving quickly to expand The Diflucan Partnership and reach as many HIV/AIDS patients as possible in the 50 countries,” said Dr. Henry McKinnell, chairperson and CEO of Pfizer.

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a tragedy of unprecedented magnitude. We will support this initiative for as long as it is needed, and we will continue to work with the UN, the WHO and other international organisations to ensure public/private partnerships like the Diflucan Programme can be most effective.”  

In the 50 least developed countries with an HIV prevalence of greater than one percent, roughly 12 million people are reported to be infected by HIV/AIDS.

Pfizer said in a statement its support had “no dollar or time limits”.

It said the partnership would offer medically responsible treatment programmes, which would include education of patients and healthcare providers, appropriate dispensing of medicines, and on-going monitoring and support from partner governments.

In order to expedite the delivery of Diflucan, Pfizer will explore existing distribution networks in the targeted countries and ship Diflucan through those networks with the approval of the appropriate government and medical authorities.

Cryptococcal meningitis is a life-threatening infection of the brain caused by the yeast Cryptococcus neoformans; it occurs in approximately one in 10 AIDS patients in the late stages of the disease.

Of those suffering from untreated meningitis, the mortality rate is more than 90 percent. Oesophageal candidiasis is a debilitating fungal infection of the oesophagus caused by Candida albicans; it is reported in 20 to 40 percent of all patients with HIV/AIDS.

While mortality rates are considerably lower for patients suffering from infection of the oesophagus, the condition frequently prevents patients from swallowing food and leads to overall physical deterioration.

In terms of the South African agreement, Pfizer has supplied R375 million worth of Diflucan for HIV/AIDS patients attending government hospitals and clinics.

Pfizer’€™s offer came after the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) challenged the manufacturer to lower its price for the drug to R4 per 200mg capsule (still double the generic price).

After TAC’s campaign started, Pfizer announced a donation of Diflucan for cryptococcal meningitis free for all people with HIV/AIDS who could not afford the drug.

While government and Pfizer were locked in negotiations TAC organised a visit to Thailand where many essential drugs can still be produced as generics.

The aim of this visit was to buy Biozole, a generic Diflucan (a drug that is patented by Pfizer) to improve and prolong the lives of people with HIV/AIDS.

“The Thailand visit exposed the profiteering and patent abuse by Pfizer,” TAC said.

A 200mg dose of Diflucan costs R28,57 in the public sectors and R80,24 in the private sector while the Thai generic, Biozole, costs R1,78 per 200mg capsule.

* In another development, SADC health ministers are scheduled to meet with pharmaceutical manufacturers in Pretoria on Friday. The meeting will be chaired by Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.


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