It is now just over a week since the funeral of the ever compassionate and forgiving, Nelson Mandela. It was an incredible time to be in South Africa in the week after his death and I wanted to share my experiences of how Mandela’s passing has renewed the commitment of the HIV movement to uphold his legacy of ‘health and rights for all’.
I was lucky enough to be in Cape Town last week for the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) and the third Global Congress on Intellectual Property (IP). The aim was to meet some of the people who are the front of the HIV and AIDS Access to Medicine movement and to absorb as much information on the subject as possible. Well, I can say that I certainly ticked both those boxes.. I think I may have actually learnt too much. Anyway here’s an overview of the conferences.
ICASA was like a festival (of talks)! I had a wrist-band, I sat round in circles and talked to people from all over the world, I ran between plenary sessions so I could fit in as much in as possible and, most of all, I felt part of something much bigger than myself. It was especially inspiring to hear from so many people living with HIV, to hear about what it was like for them growing-up, coming to terms with their status and becoming activists to fight against stigma.
No conference of activists would be complete without a surprise action, so on the Tuesday I joined the Mandela ‘legacy march’ where we stormed the main ICASA room and demanded that everyone stand-up and recognise how Mandela’s dream of eradicating stigma around HIV and having a vigorous approach to the disease was under-threat. We then formed a picket outside and heard from speakers from the Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and joined in with cries of “Amandla Awethu!”, a slogan coined during the apartheid years meaning ‘Power to the People!’
The IP Congress that followed was one of the most interesting, motivating (and intense) events that I have ever attended. For those who aren’t familiar with the, slightly complex, yet incredibly interesting role of IP and how it relates to HIV, here is a low-down.
Intellectual Property Rights (and the international IPR rules known as Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights- TRIPs) are a way of rewarding companies and individuals for coming up with new inventions. This reward is called a ‘patent’ which means no one can copy this invention for a period of 20 years, the rational being that other people can’t profit from your idea and the hard-work you put into developing the product. That might sound reasonable, and in some areas it might be appropriate but IPR can also be applied to medicine. This means that if you come up with a life-saving HIV drug (or any disease, for instance Cancer, TB) then as the inventor you can charge whatever you like for it because there is no competition from other producers. This means that millions of people have been dying because they can’t afford the prices big Pharma have set for the drugs they need!
The main focus of the IP congress was looking at how we can challenge the TRIPs system in order to prevent monopoloy prices that prevent people from accessing medicine in resource poor countries. For those of you who have seen Fire in the Blood you will know about the fight that took place in 2001 when the price of the AZT (the main HIV medication) cost more than $10,000 dollars per person per year, a cost that even the wealthy struggled to meet. Thanks to civil society mobilisation lead by people like Jamie Love from KEI (Knowledge Ecology Investment) a generic drug producing company in India called Cipla agreed to make the drug at cost which reduced the price of the drug to $100 per person per year! This was a major feat but the battle is far from over. Due to the nature of HIV as a disease which required you to take medication everyday, if a person misses their meds just 4 times in a month they can start developing resistance and this means that they require new drugs. These new drugs, such as Dolutegravir, are currently protected by patents and are far too expensive for the majority of people to afford. We need to fight this selfish corporate greed which means that people living with HIV and other preventable illnesses must needlessly suffer because big pharma ( one of the richest industries in the world) refuses to part with their huge profits.
It was incredible to be in a room with so many amazing activists, academics, doctors and lawyers who are fighting these unfair ‘laws’ which favour profiteering over saving lives. Eric Goamaere from MSF told an amazing story about meeting with Mandela to talk to him about how South Africa could role out an HIV program that would help save the lives of the 2 million people living with HIV. Thanks to Mandela’s leadership South Africa has the largest HIV program in the entire world! We must fight the forces that would prevent this from being maintained in South Africa and other countries around the world!
As Mandela said about apartheid and poverty, these are not natural occurrences, but man-made and can therefore be ended. The international trade rules that prevent people from accessing medicine are also man-made and can and should be abolished.
To learn more about what you can do to help end the corporate greed stay tuned here!!!!!!!!!!!!