Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Much to do about AIDS

With the on-going AIDS conference in Toronto, it’s become apparent that the ‘developed’ world is not doing enough to combat the disease.

Instead, the leader of the group, the US, has actually done more to undermine efforts to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS—namely through its ‘aid’ programmes which promote abstinence and being faithful.

Again, the Christian right has hijacked a serious matter that threatens the lives of millions around the world in order to promote their own religious agendas which frankly do not reflect the reality of what is going on in many ‘developing’ countries. That condoms and other contraceptives are discouraged because it’s against the ‘natural’ and ‘divine’ motivation of sex (procreation) simply cannot be allowed in this day and age.

As Bill Gates put it:

“The so-called ABC programme - abstain, be faithful and use a condom - has saved many lives, Mr Gates told the conference of more than 20,000 delegates. But he said that for many at the highest risk of infection, ABC had its limits. "Abstinence is often not an option for poor women and girls who have no choice but to marry at an early age. Being faithful will not protect a woman whose partner is not faithful. And using condoms is not a decision that a woman can make by herself; it depends on a man.

"We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women. This is true whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives or what she does, a woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life."

Here’s an in-depth (and deeply touching) report in the Guardian on why many countries lack the money and medicine to treat HIV/AIDS patients.

Stealth bombers cost $7bn. The Global Fund [for HIV/Aids] only needs one of those.

Focus on a lady called Grace, who is one of few privileged to receive anti-retroviral treatment, thanks to an initiative by a Dutch doctor and the Malawian government.

Grace Matnanga has the HIV virus running like a slow and silent poison in her veins. You can't tell who most of them are. They teach children, they police the streets, they work in hotel receptions and bring up children. They laugh and smile like every other Malawian. For months or years, they appear well. Then the downward spiral begins. […] But she knows too well what is in store. Her freedom and independence were wished on her like a curse. Once she had a husband. Once she had a child. Both are dead.

The tragedy does not only affect families, orphaned children, but also entire villages and the future of nations already impoverished, as more and more able men and women perish:

Aids is taking not only the mothers and fathers, but the aunts and uncles as well. It is striking down those who should be working the fields. Aids has played a dire part in the food shortages caused by crop failure last year, so that no family has enough to eat. The villages do their best to absorb the bereaved children but they are at saturation

Grace’s story is not an isolated one, but shared all over sub-Saharan Africa, where currently 64% of the world’s HIV/AIDS cases are located.

Aids has brought average life expectancy down from 53 to just 39. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa shares Malawi's tragedy. There are 29.4 million infected with HIV, 60% of whom are women. Last year [2002] alone 2.4 million died. Four million are in urgent need of drugs, but less than 50,000 are getting them.

The other side of the story, the bigger picture:
AIDS is not just a global pandemic, it is:

“[…] is a much bigger and more complex problem, with political, social and economic dimensions. The industry as a whole has shown few signs yet of leading the charge where governments hang back. Where is the transparent global policy, for instance, to ensure that all the badly-needed Aids drugs are sold at the lowest possible prices?

Big fat cats in pharmaceutical companys like
GlaxoSmithKline who are being paid millions and still obsessed with profits.

“[…] at the end of the day, he [. Jean Pierre Garnier, head of GSK] says, he runs a for-profit company. And if people are still dying of Aids in Africa, it is because their governments are ineffective or do not care. It is not to do with the greed or indifference of the pharmaceutical companies.

And patents stand in the way of patients opting for the cheaper versions of GSK’s Combivir:

“But the reality in distant Africa where people live on less than $1 a day is that GSK's drugs are far more expensive than the cheap versions made by generics companies like Cipla. And in South Africa, where Glaxo has patents that keep Cipla out and sells only to the private sector because the government says Aids drugs are too expensive, the prices are higher still.”

Millions of people on a potential path to death, or millions of profits? I’ll take the former, any day:

“[…] there are 29.4 million mostly very poor people set to die of Aids in sub-Saharan Africa and drug company profits, at 18.5% in 2001, are the highest of any industry on the planet.”

What should be done: a ten step plan.

Link to “Saving Grace” initiative.

BACKGROUND: What are the consequences of AIDS?

It’s not just the symptoms of the disease itself that could kill, but also the fact that HIV weakens the immune system, thus patients even more susceptible to other disease like tuberculosis and malaria (see “Opportunistic Infections” in factsheet):

“Pneumonia, a skin cancer called Karposi's sarcoma and shingles are among the HIV-related common killers. Death rates from malaria and in childbirth have gone up because of HIV.”

Here’s a factsheet.

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