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AIDS Conference Participants Promote Access to Low Cost Drugs - 2001-12-11

Delegates to an international conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases are pressing for increased availability of low cost anti-retroviral drugs to help impoverished Africans fight AIDS. The plea is taking center stage at the conference currently under way in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.

Much of the discussion at the meeting in Ouagadougou has centered on how to make drugs that are widely available in the west more affordable to impoverished Africans who contract HIV.

AIDS advocates on the continent have long complained that anti-retroviral drugs developed in the West are priced far beyond the reach of most Africans. The patents on these drugs are owned by western pharmaceutical companies that have fought the introduction of generic drugs, which are usually much cheaper than the drugs marketed under brand names. The companies argue that the generic brands hurt their profits and thus hampered their ability to develop better drugs to battle the disease.

Lo Sese of Kenya's health ministry, one of the delegates to the Ouagadougou conference, said his country is changing its laws to allow the manufacture or import of generic anti-retroviral drugs in the case of a public health emergency. "By the time the law went to parliament in June of this year, there was a major reduction in the prices of AIDS drugs. For example, before May of this year, in the Kenyan market, HIV drugs were costing $1,000 U.S. per month. But following the change of legislation, that price came down to $144," he said.

The discussions have largely centered on what Africans themselves can do to cope with the pandemic that, according to the United Nations, killed 2.3 million Africans last year.

Dr. Mariam N'Goula of the World Health Organization told a panel that African nations need to start producing their own anti-retroviral drugs. "We are talking about producing the medications here on the African continent. There are a number of facilities already in place that could be used to manufacture the drugs in various countries of the region. These are facilities that are currently being underused," said Dr. N'Goula.

Dr. N'Goula pointed to examples of developing nations in Latin America and Asia that have improved affordability by producing the drugs themselves. She said African nations should look to these countries and ask them to share their expertise.

The conference in Ouagadougou began on Sunday and is due to continue until Thursday.