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U.S. gives pennies to global battle against AIDS
Patients before profits!

July 6, 2001 | Page 5

AT LAST month's United Nations (UN) conference in New York City on how to stop the global AIDS epidemic, some of the most committed fighters against the disease weren't invited.

They had to make their voices heard by storming the dining room for conference delegates and government bureaucrats--and shaking plastic pill bottles with coins inside. "Pills cost pennies, greed costs lives," protesters chanted. HELEN REDMOND and ERIC RUDER look at the politics of AIDS.

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THE UN held its first-ever conference last month to address the devastating effects of a single disease. And with good reason.

Since the AIDS epidemic began 20 years ago, 22 million people have died worldwide. During the 1990s, the center of the epidemic has shifted--above all, to Africa, where two-thirds of the world's HIV-positive population live.

Whole countries are facing an unprecedented crisis. In South Africa, almost one-quarter of the population is infected with HIV. Government officials are desperately trying to cope with a huge increase in the number of orphans--because their parents have died of the disease.

Yet there's no reason why this has to happen.

Medications have been developed in the last decade that allow people with HIV to live productive lives for many years. But the pharmaceutical giants charge as much as $15,000 for a year's supply for a single U.S. patient.

The UN conference was supposed to take up the question of how poor countries could gain access to these life-saving drugs. But you wouldn't know it from the mainstream media's coverage of the meeting. The press focused on a controversy stirred up by several Islamic countries, which opposed the inclusion of a gay human rights group on one panel and demanded that all references to groups with a higher risk of contracting HIV--gays, intravenous drug users and prostitutes--be stricken from the conference declaration.

For their part, U.S. officials were happy that the attention remained focused on the wrangle over wording. It allowed them to portray the U.S. as enlightened and sincere about the fight against AIDS.

But AIDS activists weren't buying it. Their demonstrations exposed how the drug giants, the U.S. government and the UN itself aren't doing enough to provide access to AIDS drugs for the people who need them.

In fact, these drugs can be manufactured at a cost of about $350 for a year's supply. But the drug companies charge more than 30 times that in the U.S. Even at the slashed prices they've agreed to in poor countries, the drug giants still want many times more for a year's supply of AIDS drugs than most Africans can afford.

These corporations rake in billions in profits every year. They could give away AIDS drugs to every one of the 36 million people in the world who need them and still make a hefty sum. "This is the story that's been silenced at this special session," said Asia Russell of the Philadelphia ACT UP chapter.

But the drug giants have had to be forced to grant even the small concessions that they've made so far. Only after intense pressure did pharmaceutical companies drop their lawsuit against the South African government, which had passed a law allowing generic drug makers to produce patented AID drugs. The Bush administration says that it will drop proceedings in the World Trade Organization against Brazil, which has a similar law.

But the administration announced that its contribution to the UN's global AIDS fund would be only $200 million. That's one-fifth of the $1 billion that UN officials had asked for from the U.S.

To put this number in perspective, "Sub-Saharan Africa repays $200 million every week to its creditors," said Jamie Drummond, a member of Drop the Debt. "Zambia--where one adult in five has HIV--spends more repaying debts to the International Monetary Fund than it does on health care."

Meanwhile, AIDS remains a critical issue in the U.S.--but not among people that the Bush White House cares about. The disease is the number one killer among people of color aged 25 to 44. But Washington has no new plans to deal with the AIDS crisis for poor minorities.

The U.S. has the resources to contain the deadly effects of AIDS. Just one of the Pentagon's B-2 bombers costs $2 billion--10 times more than the U.S. pledged to the UN's AIDS fund.

The U.S. spends 0.1 percent of its gross national product on international aid--compared to Norway and Ireland, which spend 0.7 percent.

But this is hardly surprising given who's running Washington. Take Andrew Natsios, Bush's new appointee to head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Natsios recently told a House subcommittee that giving AIDS drugs to Africans wouldn't work. "They don't use Western means to tell time," Natsios said. "They use the sun. These drugs have to be taken in certain sequences. You say, take it at 10 o'clock, they say, what do you mean, 10 o'clock?"

Not only is this patently racist, but it's wrong. The latest AIDS drug regimes are taken only twice a day, in the morning and evening--and in the event that your watch might be broken, the sun is a perfectly good indicator.

We have to fight these Neanderthals who run the U.S. government. AIDS drugs should be made available to every single person who needs them.

How AIDS activists won important victories

THE AMERICAN abolitionist Frederick Douglass said many years ago that without struggle, there is no progress. The fight against AIDS has been no exception.

The politicians and the pharmaceutical giants have always wanted to ignore AIDS. At first, it was considered a "gay disease"--and an excuse for the right wing to heap abuse on its victims.

Then, when the center of the disease shifted to Africa, its later victims were too poor to command the attention of the drug companies. After all, there's more money in finding a cure for the common cold than in stopping AIDS.

But from the beginning, AIDS activists made themselves impossible to ignore.

In the 1980s, the group ACT UP took up the fight, quickly forming chapters in major cities across the U.S. ACT UP's in-your-face tactics brought the issue to public attention. In spite of the resistance of Washington lawmakers, the activism of hundreds of thousands of people forced the government to fund research and social services for AIDS victims.

The fight against AIDS has taken a new leap forward in the recent campaign to win affordable drugs for Africa.

During last year's presidential campaign, AIDS activists in the U.S. targeted Al Gore for supporting trade sanctions against South Africa as a penalty for allowing generic production of AIDS drugs. Between the pounding that Gore took on the campaign trail, the mobilizations in South Africa itself and the outrage expressed in protests elsewhere in the world, the Clinton administration had to backtrack.

When the drug companies tried to bully South Africa with their lawsuit, they were confronted by huge demonstrations when the trial opened--not only in South Africa but in cities around the world.

Numerous drug companies have cut prices for AIDS drugs over the course of the last year.

Meanwhile, at Yale University, students--working in solidarity with South African activists--began a campaign on campus to force the school and pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb to give up the patent on the AIDS drug d4T, which was developed at Yale. Dr. William Prusoff, who developed the drug, joined with students in calling on Yale not to enforce its patent. The campaign eventually won--university officials and representatives of Bristol Meyers Squibb agreed to give up the patent.

Sharonann Lynch, a member of ACT UP and the Health GAP Coalition, says "The legacy of direct action is incontrovertible."

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