The 16th International AIDS conference is taking place this week in Toronto. A number of blogs have been set up to report on the conference proceedings and to discuss various aspects of HIV/AIDS. Two of those, Panos – the Global AIDSs Programme and Human Rights Watch (Eliminate AIDS) have collaborative blogs with contributions from bloggers and activists from around the world. Two of the challenges facing HIV and AIDS activists is to bridge the gap between public understanding of of HIV/AIDS and the reality and to force the multinational drug companies to stop patenting ARV drugs.
25 years on since the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed, there is still a high level of ignorance and stigma attached to the illness. Natalis Campbell of Jamaica writing on the Panos blog, addressed this in a post entitled “Time to Act”
At the Metropolitan Conference Center, there were individuals wearing T shirts declaring they were HIV positive. I smiled as I thought back to my homeland Jamaica and realized that it would be a very, very long time before persons living with AIDS would confidently say or wear in public clothing declaring “I AM HIV POSITIVE”. Yes… stigma and discrimination are still rife.
Listening to people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) talk about the discrimination they face, you realize that a lot more needs to be done to assist those living with the disease, especially in my country Jamaica. A 24 year old female PLWHA from Indonesia explained at a press conference Sunday that a dentist wouldn’t treat her because of her status. I know many PLWHAs in Jamaica have similar experiences.
In an interview with Women’s Hour, Masias Cowper who’s been HIV positive for 13 years discusses her status and the problems of disclosure that continue to exist and the forming of new relationships. She talks about disclosing her status to her family which she describes as “the worst thing ever”. It took her 6 months and when she did disclose to her partner the reaction was violent and negative even though it was he who was the source of the infection. Slowly she began to come out to her family and her workplace despite being fired from her job. “five years after my diagnosis was five years of recovery” – recovering her rights as a woman, to love, to be reproductive, to be respected, to be in a relationship, have a job, participate in her community.
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25 years on and still the majority of people living with HIV do not have access to ARV drug therapy because of the huge cost of patented drugs. Even where generic alternatives are available such as those made in India, supplies are pathetically low (only 10,000 out of 700,000 who need ARV treatment). Activists at the conference have staged a series of protests against patented drugs…
Honoring India’s Independence Day, activists marched throughout the Exhibition Hall with posters in the colors of the Indian flag and called pharmaceutical companies and national government to quit trying to patent life-saving ARV drugs. India which has long been a producer of generic drugs is under particular attack both because it supplies ARV’s to only about 10,000 of the 700, 000 Indians who need them and because the country is set to relinquish independent, generic production of AIDS drugs at the end of 2006. Activists chanted “Big Pharma Quit India,” “Time to Deliver” and “Life Before Profits”
However, simply providing communities with generic drugs is not by itself a solution especially if there is no overall proper healthcare provision and human rights are violated regularly. In a report “ARV Drug Treatment in Africa”, Dr Odutola of the Centre for Health Policy & Strategic Studies in Lagos, explains some of the problems associated with ARV provision in Africa and with implementing ‘universal’ rather than localised drug policies. For example he describes an ARV Treatment plan using generic drugs in Nigeria in 2002 as follows:
Notwithstanding, the pilot programme was bedevilled by many logistic problems, including supply chain snafus, lack of awareness by beneficiaries of programme, inadequate provider capacity, inability of beneficiaries to bear the cost of ancillary diagnostic and laboratory services and drug expiration among others. Many beneficiaries had no continuous supply of ARV drugs and consequently suffered treatment stoppages that lasted for over three months in some cases with attendant risks of drug resistance
One of the realities of living with HIV in 2006 is that given the medical developments in drug therapy no one should be dying of AIDS related illnesses today. People in the West are living with HIV. On the whole they are living healthily. There still needs to be awareness around the possibilities of re-infection which makes drug therapy much more complex and difficult to address and the issues of stigma still exists. However in Africa and other parts of the majority world, access to free ARV, lack of even the most basic of healthcare provision, poverty, stigma and myths, policies and programmes from outside, lack of will of indigenous governments and conditions set by countries such as the US on the delivery of AIDS funding all add to the increased misery and death toll faced by millions.