AIDS Needs Aid

Tue Sep. 23, 2003 2:00 AM EDT


The United Nations and World Health Organization declared last week that progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS has stalled, the result of political inaction and insufficient funds . Ahead of a special daylong meeting on HIV/AIDS at the U.N. on Monday, the W.H.O. announced its goal of providing anti-retroviral drugs to 3 million people by 2005. HIV/AIDS, it said, is a "global health emergency." In hardest-hit Africa, for instance, the disease is "contributing to food shortages ... and threatening progressive economic collapse."

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The U.N. and W.H.O. say international anti-AIDS efforts fall far short of their goals. A U.N. report released on Sunday took stock of progress made in the fight against the disease since member nations signed on to a "Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS" two years ago. It found that though some progress has been made, "the challenges posed by the epidemic remain as large as ever," and that at current levels aid is inadequate to those challenges. AIDS funding in Africa, for example, where 30 million people are infected with HIV and 11 million children have lost a parent to the disease, is expected to cover only half of the projected expenses of dealing with the crisis by 2005.

U.N. workers charge wealthy nations with inaction on treatment and prevention, the Washington Post reports.

"'There is still too much talking and not enough doing," Michel Sidibe, director of country and regional support for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which penned the report, said in a written statement released with it yesterday.

'If words and paper commitments alone could prevent HIV infection and stave off the deadly effects of AIDS, we would have already reached the Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the spread of the epidemic by 2015,' Sidibe said, referring to the goal that all U.N. member states agreed to achieve at the Millennium Summit in 2000. 'In reality, our actions too often fall short of our loudly pronounced slogans and pledges.'"

But the Associated Press notes that while lack of funding from wealthy countries is major problem, it's just one of many factors in the spread of AIDS. The U.N. General Assembly, gathered for its special panel on Monday, lauded long-awaited funds like President Bush's committment of $15 million to fighting AIDS. (No doubt the G.A. is thrilled to have gotten anything from the United States. This sum is widely felt to be an inadequate and, from a country as rich as the U.S., almost laughable).

In any event, governmental denial and a lack of education regarding the disease could render funds moot. The U.N. report found that the majority of women ages 15 to 24 in sub-Saharan Africa do not realize that condom use reduces the risk of infection -- and that women are four times more likely to be infected due to "underlying gender inequalities." The AP reports that "duplication, corruption and mismanagement" play significant roles in the misuse of provided funds.

One recent attempt to alleviate the problem has run into trouble. Provisions in a World Trade Organization agreement to allow impoverished nations to import generic drugs, in theory a very positive development, are tangled up in red tape, according to CorpWatch. Manufacturing processes that would require differentiation between the generic and brand-name pills are costly, and the accord would limit the countries that could obtain the medicines. Additionally, the Agence France-Presse reports, licenses to import the drugs would be rendered useless if the country charged with exporting the drugs did not acquire a similar compulsory license. And efforts have been made to prohibit generic producers from gaining profits from the manufacture of the drugs, reducing their incentive to make them.

Activists have cited the Bush administration's solicitude toward the U.S. pharmaceutical agency as the root of the drug problem. While access to anti-retroviral medication in Rwanda cost $35 to the U.S.'s $700 in 1999, the reduced cost ignores the fact that the majority of Africans live on less than $1 a day. Critics of the WTO accord assert that patents owned by large pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Eli-Lilly allow such companies to enjoy monopolies and charge exorbitant amounts for drugs. Asia Russell, Director of the Philadelphia-based group Global Access Project (Health GAP), opined that the WTO's accord was still more about imbalanced market access that saving lives:

"'The current solution is designed to placate U.S. drug companies and guarantee ever-expanding market share, not to increase access to affordable generic medicines for dying people.'"
Gawain Kripk of UK-based Oxfam agreed, noting:
"'When people's lives are at stake they will pay whatever they can. Many people are at risk of losing their lives with HIV and malaria and they simply don't have the money to pay and they will die.'"