Tuesday, December 02, 2003

India Marks World AIDS day with Move to Make Treatments More Affordable

According to this story, the Indian government announced yesterday, on World AIDS day, a plan to provide patients with the cheapest drugs in the world through a deal with its pharmaceutical firms. While many with the disease say this move is a bit to late, it is still a step in the right direction.

It's a tremendous development," said Ashok Alexander, executive director in India of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "It's very exciting news." The foundation, set up by Microsoft head Bill Gates to combat the spread of Aids in India, has launched a 200 million dollar programme in India aimed at high-risk "mobile populations" such as truck drivers, migrants and labourers.

"Our focus has been on prevention, but we believe it is now imperative to provide linkages between groups working in prevention with those dealing with treatment and care-giving," Alexander said. "It's a good move - very positive," said Ravi Verma, who heads anti-HIV/Aids programmes in India for international non-governmental organisation Population Council." Yesterday, Health Minister Sushma Swaraj announced the Indian government will launch a two billion rupee (43.6 million dollar) programme to provide free medication to HIV-positive parents, children up to age 15 and poor patients using government hospitals.

And according to the New York Times story, Doctors in India currently prescribe antiretroviral therapy, but at about $1 a day (much cheaper than in the U.S. or anywhere else), it is out of reach for most people, with the per-capita income less than $500 a year. Providing the drugs will also challenge India's underfinanced health system. The government spends about $5 million a year on programs to prevent or treat H.I.V./AIDS, with far greater resources — an estimated $95 million annually — coming from outside donors like the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sushma Swaraj, India's minister for health and family welfare, said she would approach the finance ministry for money. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, based in Geneva. also has agreed to provide India with $100 million over five years for a mix of prevention, treatment, voluntary testing and counseling, although technical disagreements have held up the signing of a final agreement. Its director, Dr. Richard Feachem, said it was possible that more of the money could be committed to treatment to support the new venture, but reducing the price of the drugs will be critical. Cipla, Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd., and Matrix Laboratories, now joined by a fourth Indian company, Hetero Drugs, as well as a South African company, Aspen Pharmacare Holdings, recently reached an agreement with the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation to provide the drug to four African and nine Caribbean countries for 36 to 38 cents a day. Under the agreement, the companies will increase production in return for a guaranteed customer base. The companies will supply at least 1.5 million patients over the next five years, and the price of their raw materials will be pre-negotiated. They will sell direct to the foundation or the governments, rather than middlemen, and be paid immediately.

I think any move the government makes to make the disease more visible, to make treatment more accessible, and to destigmatize HIV/AIDS is a step in the right direction.


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