Published on Monday, March 19, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
Combating AIDS in Africa
Cheaper Drugs Help, But They Are Not The Sole Solution
by Salim Muwakkil
Humanity, your mother continent needs help.
Africa, the continent that gave birth to the human race, has become the epicenter of a plague that is threatening to take it out. It is believed that the global pandemic of AIDS/HIV will kill more people in the next decade than all the wars of the 20th Century, and Africa will be the largest killing field.
The 21 countries with the highest infection rates for the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, are all in Africa. According to Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 25 million of the world's estimated 36 million people infected with the virus and 90 percent of the world's AIDS orphans live in Africa. Distressingly, new infections in Africa are coming at the rate of 6,000 a day.
Last year, the Clinton administration declared AIDS a national security problem, capable of toppling foreign governments, sparking ethnic wars and destroying decades of work in building free-market democracies. According to an April 30 Washington Post article, the Clinton administration's action was spurred by intelligence reports that projected "one-fourth of southern Africa's population is likely to die of AIDS and that the number of people dying of the disease will rise for 10 years before there is much prospect of improvement." Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa will face a demographic catastrophe during the next 20 years, the report noted. In Malawi, for example, AIDS already has cut average life expectancy from 51 to 37 years of age.
The huge scope of this tragedy promotes a feeling of helplessness and dismay. But some hope has been kindled in recent months by successful struggles by AIDS activists and others demanding that Africa's AIDS-infected have access to the anti-retroviral drug "cocktails" that have dramatically reduced mortality rates of people in richer countries. The $10,000 to $20,000 yearly cost of these drugs is more than many Africans make in a lifetime.
In recent days, worldwide pressure has persuaded U.S. drug companies Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to offer their AIDS medicines below cost to the hard-hit areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Other pharmaceutical companies are likely to follow suit. What's more, Cipla, an Indian drugmaker, also announced it would offer low-cost generic copies of patented AIDS medications to South Africa, which is one of the hardest hit countries in the region.
This issue of cheaper generic drugs is a hot one because it concerns matters of patent rights guaranteed by provisions of the World Trade Organization. Last year, 39 major drug companies sued the South African government to prevent it from allowing generic versions of patented drugs to be sold. The companies argued they should be entitled to recover the research and development costs incurred while developing new drugs.
Although important trade issues may have prompted that suit, its public face is an ugly one: greed versus compassion. "If they were to win the suit and defeat the South African government, they lose the moral high ground," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, at a recent news conference urging the drug companies to drop the suit. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition has been in the forefront of the fight for low-cost AIDS treatment in Africa.
Cheaper anti-retroviral drugs definitely will be helpful to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, but a focus on indigenous cultural factors may be even more important. The continent became ground zero in the global AIDS plague through a lethal mixture of elements: proximity (HIV was born in Africa) and poverty, tradition and ignorance, denial and neglect.
A variety of myths born of ignorance and traditional beliefs of bewitched spirits or of ancestral displeasure encourage behavior that spreads AIDS. For example, an increasing number of credible media reports have noted the prevalence of a disturbing folk belief in South Africa that having sex with a virgin will exorcise HIV. Health officials in South Africa, which has the largest and fastest growing population of people with AIDS, say adolescent girls are twice as likely to become infected as boys. Aside from those more eccentric beliefs, polygamy is a common cultural practice in many African societies, and nomadic employment patterns abet sexual promiscuity. Strict traditions of male privilege also discourage females from demanding condom protection.
Groups like Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH may be less willing to stress these factors of AIDS prevention, but help for the mother continent comes in many ways.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune