In Africa, 17 million people have already died of AIDS. In
developing countries around the world, twice that many are now HIV
positive. Such statistics are largely unfathomable. And news accounts
rarely explore basic options for halting the deadly momentum.
But during the past several weeks, some major U.S. media outlets
have taken bold and valuable steps in coverage of the global fight against
AIDS. Mainstream journalists are making headway in reporting on a crucial
issue: How can life-saving drugs get to poor people who need them?
Time magazine published a 20-page cover story in its Feb. 12
edition, combining stark photos with text about AIDS and its victims in
Africa. "We have no medicines for AIDS," says a South African doctor. "So
many hospitals tell them, 'You've got AIDS. We can't help you. Go home and
While it's an important breakthrough for American journalism, the
Time spread has left ample room for improvement in follow-up efforts. The
critical acuity is sharpest -- and harshest -- when focusing on cultural
and political shortcomings that have contributed to the AIDS disaster in
Africa. But the Manhattan-based magazine is not as tough or explicit when
it assesses culpability closer to home in a one-page closing piece --
"Paying for AIDS Cocktails: Who should pick up the tab for the Third World?"
Noting that "wealthy countries use multidrug-cocktail therapies
that transform AIDS from certain killer to chronic illness," the article
reported: "Despite years of evidence of AIDS' genocidal toll on poor
countries, no one has brought these drugs within reach of ordinary
Africans. In fact, the people who make the drugs -- American- and
European-owned multinational pharmaceutical corporations -- and their home
governments, notably Washington, have worked hard to keep prices up by
limiting exports to the Third World and vigorously enforcing patent rights."
Interestingly, Time failed to name any of those drug companies.
But reporter Johanna McGeary and the magazine deserve credit for raising
pivotal concerns in a high-profile way. "During the tug of war so far," she
explained, "the pharmaceuticals and Western governments have prevailed. But
increasingly, poor countries and AIDS advocates are finding ways to shift
the balance." India and Brazil have manufactured generic copies of AIDS
drugs, "selling them at deeply discounted prices."
Time's reportage came on the heels of an extensive path-breaking
article in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, on Jan. 28, by Tina
Rosenberg. "Countries that have tried to manufacture generic medicine have
fallen under debilitating pressure from pharmaceutical companies and from
Washington," she wrote. Among the firms cited in the lengthy article were
Glaxo Wellcome, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck and Pfizer.
Rosenberg took an in-depth look at Brazil's successful
innovations. "Since 1997," she reported, "virtually every AIDS patient in
Brazil for whom it is medically indicated gets, free, the same triple
cocktails that keep rich Americans healthy. (In Western Europe, no one who
needs AIDS treatment is denied it because of cost. This is true in some
American states, but not all.) Brazil has shredded all the excuses about
why poor countries cannot treat AIDS."
The Times article pointed out: "On the shaky foundation of its
public health service, Brazil built a well-run network of AIDS clinics....
Brazilian AIDS patients have proved just as able to take their medicine on
time as patients in the United States." And Brazil's program "has halved
the death rate from AIDS, prevented hundreds of thousands of new
hospitalizations, cut the transmission rate, helped to stabilize the
epidemic and improved the overall state of public health in Brazil."
Hopefully, we'll see a continuation of the current trend toward
clear-eyed investigative reporting about the global reach of the immensely
profitable drug industry. Each prominent example of such journalism helps
to lay the groundwork for others. In late December, the front page of the
Washington Post showcased a series of fine articles, "Death Watch: AIDS,
Drugs and Africa," which included close scrutiny of how drug companies have
raked in huge profits while blocking attempts to provide desperately needed
medication to AIDS sufferers.
A parallel challenge for journalists is to present broader
contexts. For instance: When Time's cover story mentioned, as a significant
cause of prostitution, that "plenty of women in bush villages need extra
cash, often to pay school fees," the magazine did not explain why millions
of African people have been required to pay tuition for education. A key
fact is that for many years, beginning in the late 1980s, powerful lending
institutions like the World Bank insisted that African countries require
user fees for schools and health clinics -- all part of the push to impose
a "free market" for the benefit of Western lenders and investors.
If a new era of reporting on the global AIDS crisis is here,
journalists will be probing for deeper questions and answers.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."