Published on Monday, July 10, 2000 in the Independent / UK
AIDS Activists: Drug Companies 'Inflicting Holocaust On The Poor'
by Alex Duval Smith in Durban
Drug companies which refuse to provide cheap Aids drugs to the Third World and western governments hiding behind punitive trade and patent rules are the principal culprits of a "holocaust against the poor" which has already infected more than 23 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, activists said yesterday at the start of the 13th World Aids conference.
The conference has drawn 12,000 delegates to the South African port of Durban. Ironically, drug companies, the big enemies, are also the main sponsors of the conference.
"Aids is a holocaust against the poor and the responsibility lies with the drug companies who put their profits before their responsibilities," said Zachie Achmat, head of the South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) which wants affordable drugs to be made available to HIV positive people and those suffering from Aids-related illnesses. TAC wants World Bank debt relief to be conditional on health care expansion in third world countries.
The protesters' focus on international drug companies and trade rules, which allegedly prevent South Africa from manufacturing its own cheap generic drugs, will take some heat off President Thabo Mbeki and his government under fire for obstructing treatment offers to the population, 4.2 million of which is HIV positive.
President Mbeki has also drawn criticism after mishandling the Aids crisis in his country. He has created the impression that he questions the link between HIV and Aids and that he considers AZT one of the oldest and still most efficient weapons against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) too toxic for South Africans. His government has also turned down at least one offer of free HIV drugs from a pharmaceutical company.
Last night, President Mbeki used an opening ceremony address in Durban's King's Park stadium to justify his decision to convene an experts' panel which controversially includes scientists discredited by the HIV-Aids establishment - and to underline his view that "Africa's health crisis" is rooted in poverty.
He said that after reading a 1995 World Health Organisation report on Aids in Africa, he had concluded that "we could not blame everything on a simple virus. Every African is pray to many enemies of health that interact in many ways within one human body". He listed hepatitis B, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and Aids, syphilis and others as forming part of the African health emergency.
Mr Mbeki's aides insist that southern African economies simply cannot afford to handle the HIV-Aids emergency. But the principled approach of President Mbekiis unlikely to impress those doctors and patients dealing with the emergency now. Nearly all the world's 11 million Aids orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Eric Goemaere, a M(acute)edecins Sans Fronti(grave)eres doctor who runs a mother-to-child Aids project in a Cape Town township, accused the South African government of living in denial. He said: "HIV testing is widely available in this country. The best thing to do, if you are worried about HIV, is to get tested and seek counselling. These facilities are available but people do not go. I understand them.
"Why would you go and be tested if you had no chance of treatment? Some people in South Africa have been stoned to death for admitting they are HIV positive," he said.
Because of the cost of HIV-Aids drugs, most Africans see the virus as a certain death sentence. People who are known to be HIV-positive are sometimes thrown out by their families for being a burden. Consequently, the taboo surrounding the virus is enormous and safe-sex campaigns often do not work. .
Tina Magongwa, 39, who has known she is HIV positive since 1993, joined the march in Durban yesterday because she hoped it would lead to cheap treatments for South Africans. "A lot of people do not know that drugs exist which can make you live longer. I hope that this conference will spread the message to many people here. I think both the government and the pharmaceutical companies are to blame."
Location: Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.Up to 25 per cent of the population is HIV-positive.
Durban's features: Major trading port.
Aids statistics: More than 90 per cent of the world's 34 million people with HIV live in the Third World
Conference slogan: Breaking the silence.
Activists' slogan: Breaking the patents (of the drug companies).
Delegates: 11,000 from Europe and the US and 1,500 Third World delegates.
Principal sponsors: Nine pharmaceutical companies including manufacturers of all the major HIV-Aids drugs.
More than 70 per cent of HIV-Aids activists and scientists are in the developed world and focused on treatment through expensive drugs.
Copyright 2000 Independent / UK