The Price of Treating AIDS

The Christian Century, October 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Price of Treating AIDS


THE HIGH COST of drugs and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS is a matter about which the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) is "gravely concerned." South Africa has approximately 1,500 new HIV infections daily. About 10 percent of the country's population of 43 million are affected by HIV/AIDS, according to Robert Shell, head of the population research unit at the East London campus of Rhodes University. South Africa's Department of Health says about 65 percent of all new infections are among young people between the ages of 15 and 25.

A month's supply of the antiviral drug AZT costs $80, while the more effective "cocktail" of a combination of three protease inhibitor drugs which suppress the spread of the HIV virus in the body costs about $334 a month--far beyond the reach of the majority of South Africans. Sixty percent of South Africa's population live on a monthly income ranging from $80 to $550, reports Molefe Tsele, director of the Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation.

The statement from the bishops comes against the background of a legal tug-of-war between South Africa and the U.S. about the global pricing system of AIDS drugs. According to this system, drug companies have divided the world into different price zones, based on what the average middle-class patient can pay. Only about 5 percent of white South Africans are believed to be infected with HIV/AIDS, but their high average income has placed South Africa in the category of the rich countries that pay premium prices for the drugs.

South Africa's department of health has tried to break out of this pricing system, wanting to import drugs more cheaply from poorer countries which have been allocated a lower price. South Africa could also manufacture the drugs itself, but if it did so it would be forced under patent licensing protocols to set prices close to those of the developed world.

Bart Cox, coordinator of the HIV Programme of the Anglican Church in the Johannesburg archdiocese, said that in 1997 the South African government began the process of passing legislation to allow it to manufacture AIDS drugs and ignore patents. But local subsidiaries of U.S. pharmaceutical companies started legal action against the government. "The U.S. government meanwhile has withdrawn objections, but the local pharmaceutical companies only suspended their court action," Cox noted.

In its statement, which was released on September 22, the SACBC said it was "gravely concerned about the inordinate delay in making affordable drugs and treatment available to those infected with serious illnesses, in particular HIV/AIDS. …

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