Cheaper drugs a moral right

 

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Category: Health Care Date: 13 Jan 02


Pour l’Innocent, an NGO associated with the Cyril Ross Nursery home to HIV/Aids children is barely hanging on to a life raft weighed down by critically ill children.

 

Meanwhile, a pharmaceutical ship with life-saving equipment that could allow them a natural lifespan, passes responsibility for the children around its multinational company like a football.

 

As the only NGO currently providing life-saving anti-retroviral medication to those who can’t afford it, Pour l’Innocent has had to make some painful choices.

 

It is made up of a group that believes underprivileged, sick and orphaned children have the right to life to be nurtured, to have a chance to make something of themselves.

 

One child lives because we were able to raise enough for medication for him, for another child, it means another funeral, shortly. It can’t be helped. We can’t save them all. It’s too expensive. They are treating 16 HIV positive children at the cost of TT$30,000 a year. That’s almost half a million dollars.

 

Pour l’Innocent needs another half a million to treat 16 other children, dying as you read this, in the arms of a mother with full-blown AIDS, or a desperate grandmother who has already lost her daughter.

 

Last year, five children went overboard, died, succumbed to HIV/AIDS. They may have lived if they were given the cocktail of anti-retroviral medicine promised at ten percent of the cost, last March with great fanfare by GlaxoSmithKline, an international pharmaceutical company.

 

For the ten months since the announcement Katherine Long of Pour l’Innocent says they have been given the runaround.

“We expected to be able to buy the drugs as announced at ten per cent of the cost,” she said.

“But even after we fulfilled their criteria by providing them with proof of our NGO status, the children’s medical records, testimonials by doctors, protocol of treatment, they said it was in the hands of their head office in Costa Rica.”

They eventually stopped taking our calls.

 

After speaking with two managers of GlaxoSmithKline in the space of two days, to ask why they haven’t yet provided the promised medication, my head began to spin, and I began to understand what an ordeal the last ten months must have been to this NGO that wants to keep the Cyril Ross children alive.

 

First, they said they had no comment. Then they said Pour l’Innocent hadn’t initially met the criteria to qualify for preferential drug prices for the children, but admitted that now they do. Then they said it was out of their hands because “Head Office” in Costa Rica was dealing with it, but confusingly added they were doing everything in their power to fast track it.

 

“How you can fast track something out of your hands?” I wondered aloud and they said they were “following up with calls”.

“If you’re following up, what is the current status?” It’s out of their hands. Then they said there is a procedure. It is complicated and the medication needs to be monitored. They said they were delayed because they were dealing with applications from other NGOs for reduced pricing.

 

Why, I asked, did they make the announcement of reduced prices for anti-retroviral with great fanfare, with the media and the former Minister of Health in town if they hadn’t got approval from head office?

They couldn’t answer that one.

 

But it has to be admitted that hearts of the managers at GlaxoSmithKline were in the right place. After I mentioned the five children who had died since March, there were many murmurings of the correct platitudes and regrets at the children’s deaths.

 

On my request they issued a statement on the issue that runs as follows:

“GlaxoSmithKline has had a long-standing relationship with Pour l’Innocent. Part of this relationship is our commitment to assist in delivering affordable anti-retroviral for the treatment of HIV-infected children. We have honoured this commitment in the past and will continue to do so. We will continue to assist in providing direct subsidies and donations to this organisation to assist in the very valuable work being done.”

This is excellent PR because it sounds nice and commits nothing.

 

When will the medication to the children be available at ten per cent of the cost? Why has it taken so long? Will Pour l’Innocent receive something in writing to confirm that they will provide “direct subsidies and donations”? How much will they provide? Over what period?

 

International drug companies are no longer doing NGOs a huge favour by providing drugs at reduced prices for those suffering with HIV/AIDS.

 

Firstly, it is their moral obligation to do so, since the prices of life-saving drugs are jacked up, making them beyond the reach to those who need them most.

 

Secondly, countries such as Nigeria already have begun pressurising pharmaceutical firms importing cheap copies of patented AIDS drugs from India, cutting the cost of anti-retroviral from US$5,700 a year to $US320. Nigeria’s move, according to a Guardian Weekly report follows the court victory by South Africa over a coalition of pharmaceutical firms which has established the right of governments to seek cheaper drugs to deal with AIDS.

 

It’s time GlaxoSmithKline puts their platitudes into action, providing antiretroviral drugs at reduced pricing as promised, with the full understanding that each moment they dither, an HIV child takes another step towards his or her grave.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur