A new global coalition has been formed to improve access to AIDS drugs in developing countries. The coalition unites several governments, international agencies, philanthropies, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and research institutions.
The gap between the number of people around the world who need AIDS drugs and the number getting them is enormous. The World Health Organization estimates that of the 40 million HIV patients in developing countries, only 300,000 get the anti-retroviral therapies that halt HIV's replication.
The new grouping, the International HIV Treatment Access Coalition, is working toward a modest closing of that gap. It has adopted the WHO's goal of increasing the number of patients on AIDS drugs to three-million by 2005, a tenfold increase.
WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland, whose organization is a member, announced the formation of the coalition at a Geneva ceremony Thursday.
The president of the International AIDS Society, Joep Lange, says making AIDS drugs more widely available requires a united effort.
"If we want to scale up to the millions, we will need a very focused, concerted action on a global level, and this can be done only through partnership, because no single organization can do this alone," he said.
The coalition says AIDS drug prices are coming down, an increasing amount of donor money is available for AIDS programs, and more countries are committed to providing treatment for their HIV patients. As a result, the coalition seeks to play a coordinating role, to help remove barriers to drug distribution and use. Mr. Lange says this includes setting up reliable drug procurement systems, better sharing of information about what works in successful treatment programs, and training health care workers about the drugs.
"This coalition is really about implementation. It's trying to provide the technical assistance in essential areas, and end fragmentation that we are currently witnessing, with regard to scaling up access. It's going to be working on very concrete problems. It tries to provide assistance to countries to really get the job done," he said.
The coalition says clinical results from many AIDS drug treatment programs in Africa, Asia, and the Americas show that the therapies are safe in poor settings, and that adherence to complicated pill-taking regimens is high among patients.
The director of the World Health Organization's HIV-AIDS Program, Bernard Schwartlander, says it is no longer reasonable to assume that AIDS treatment cannot be promoted in poor countries because resources are lacking.
"Yes, of course, we need to improve the resources, but this is a false dichotomy," he said. "We can move with a lot of things now. We do have in all societies examples on how treatments can be delivered in these countries, and it is simply unacceptable that this argument is used to not move on HIV-AIDS care today."
The 56 initial members of the International HIV Treatment Access Coalition include the governments of Uganda, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, and the Netherlands. United States members include the Rockefeller, William Clinton and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations; Columbia University's School of Public Health, Family Health International, and the American Foundation for AIDS Research.