Fighting AIDS

Published: Sunday 15 July 2001

Africa's first consignment of cheap generic antiretroviral drugs for treating AIDS was given to Kenya's Nyumbani Orphanage on June 12, 2001. "It's the beginning of the flow of medicines that have hitherto been prohibited," said Angelo D'Agostino, a priest who runs the orphanage. Five-year-old Dickson, made history by becoming the first Kenyan to take a dose of azt , a generic antiretroviral drug whose patent is held by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a multinational pharmaceutical company. The drugs were donated by Brazil.

The Industrial Properties Bill 2001, which would loosen the strong hold of pharmaceutical companies over patented drugs in the country, was passed by the Kenyan parliament on that very day. Kenya is the second African country to pass such a law. The bill has been introduced to legalise the import of generic drugs. While Kenya has around 200,000 children and two million adults who are infected with AIDS, only 1,000 of them are able to meet the cost of treatment. Despite the pharmaceutical companies recently reducing the prices of the some of the AIDS drugs, most of the African consumers cannot afford these medicines. In April 2001, the multinational pharmaceutical companies had to drop a case against the South African government through which they had tried to stop the import of cheap generic drugs (see 'A bitter dose', Down to Earth , Vol 9, No 22, April 15, 2001).

To clear the air between the African countries and the pharmaceutical companies holding patents, the United Nations brought the two together on June 8, 2001, in Johannesburg. During the meeting, drug companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, GSK, Merck, Sharp & Dohme, Pfizer Incorporated, Roche Holdings, Boehringer Ingelheim and 11 African countries discussed various ways to make cheaper drugs available to African countries.

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