Cheaper Drugs to Combat AIDS
With the development of life-prolonging AIDS drugs in recent years, the high cost of treatment has become a source of legitimate complaint in developing nations. In the poorest regions of the world, where AIDS has hit hardest, effective treatment is all but unaffordable. So there is reason to welcome last week's announcement that five of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies have offered to slash the price of AIDS drugs in poor countries. In an agreement with the United Nations, the companies pledged to sell their drugs for as much as 90 percent below the prices Americans pay.
By the end of 1999, more than 33 million people worldwide were living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Ninety-five percent of them were in the developing world, including 23 million in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet in most of these countries, treatment of the disease is negligible.
Cheaper drugs by themselves will likely have little immediate impact. There are still far too few doctors and nurses in these regions, and health care facilities are hopelessly inadequate. The powerful drug cocktails that can prolong life cost as much as $15,000 a year for a single American patient. Even reducing prices by 90 percent would leave the drugs unaffordable for most Africans.
But drastically cut prices can encourage doctors and health care officials in poor countries to learn how to use these drugs and to develop the clinics needed to deliver them and monitor their use. Lower prices also may serve as an incentive for people to get tested for the virus and to seek care. The U.N. estimates that 90 percent of those living with H.I.V. are unaware of their infection.
The drug companies' announcement came a day after the Clinton administration issued a long-overdue executive order saying the United States would not interfere with African countries that violate American patent law to provide AIDS drugs more cheaply, either by licensing local companies to produce generic versions or by importing lower-cost drugs. Resources and political will in many afflicted nations are still inadequate to the urgent needs of prevention, education and health care development. But the price decision by the drug companies is cause for hope.