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The World's Celebration
January 11, 2000

Africa Seeks Affordable AIDS Drugs


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Filed at 1:27 a.m. EST

By The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- African countries say wealthy nations should make HIV-fighting drugs available and affordable to residents of the continent, which has been hardest hit by AIDS yet has virtually no access to treatments saving lives in the industrialized world.

Many African health ministers and ambassadors attending a meeting of the Security Council on Monday applauded a new initiative by the United States to increase funding for AIDS prevention programs and vaccine research.

At the meeting, Vice President Al Gore announced that the White House was seeking an extra $150 million this year from Congress for vaccine research and prevention programs in Africa.

African officials, however, said more money was needed, and that wealthy nations had an ethical imperative to give Africans access to HIV-fighting drugs.

``It is immoral that the worst affected continent has the lowest access to care,'' said Namibia's health minister, Dr. Libertine Amathila.

Many patents for HIV-fighting drugs are held by Western pharmaceutical companies, which have lobbied to block cheaper, generic versions from being manufactured. That has kept effective yet expensive drugs such as AZT and their generic versions out of the hands of most Africans.

Zimbabwe's health minister, Dr. Timothy Stamps, said withholding such drugs constituted a violation of Africans' basic human rights -- the right to health. And he questioned whether the practice was a result of sheer ignorance or a ``new form of racial discrimination, another ethnic cleansing process.''

Stamps was similarly incredulous that the industrialized world had just spent what he said was $600 billion to ward off the Y2K computer bug ``to eliminate the risk of some people losing some money, some places losing some data and some people disrupting their busy schedules.''

``To some of us in the real world, this only induces a sense of wonder that intelligent beings in the metropolitan countries can be so oblivious, so color blind, to what has happened in the African continent over the past 15 years,'' he said.

AIDS is now the leading killer in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where poverty and wars have already taken a heavy toll. In 1998, 200,000 people died as a result of armed conflicts in Africa, compared with 2.2 million from AIDS.

An estimated 23.3 million Africans are currently infected with HIV or AIDS.

``War fuels the epidemic,'' Dr. Peter Piot, head of the joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, told the council in its first meeting ever on a health issue. ``But undoubtedly the epidemic itself is now ... causing social and economic crises which in turn threaten political stability.''

According to U.N. statistics, $165 million was spent on AIDS prevention in Africa in 1996, while estimates suggest that between $800 million and $2.5 billion a year is needed to mount effective prevention campaigns on the continent.

The United States alone spends $10 billion annually in public and private money for AIDS research, prevention, care and treatment for the 40,000 people infected in America every year, the U.N. Development Program says.

The AIDS activist group ACT-UP said the administration could save millions of African lives if it would stop pressuring poor countries and allow them to access generic drugs that could reduce the cost of HIV-fighting medicines by as much as 90 percent.

``An end to these U.S. pressure campaigns would cost taxpayers nothing,'' said a statement from ACT-UP.

The organization's members disrupted some of Gore's presidential campaign outings last year to protest the administration's policy on AIDS drugs.

ACT-UP similarly criticized Gore's $150 million spending announcement as a ``drop in the funding bucket.''

Gore's appearance at the United Nations also drew some questions from reporters about whether the vice president was merely bolstering his campaign to be the Democratic candidate for president by announcing some new U.S. initiatives.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke scoffed at such suggestions, saying what was announced had no direct relation to the campaign.



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