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Patients Need Better Access to AIDS Medicines, say Experts - 2003-07-13

Hundreds of political and business leaders have joined scientists and health experts in Paris for a four-day international AIDS conference, which coincides with the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the AIDS virus. Despite major strides in AIDS research, advocates say patients need greater access to new medications - both in developed and developing countries.

In opening remarks, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso outlined his country's largely successful strategy in fighting AIDS, which is considered a model in some other parts of the world. It includes the accessibility of affordable drugs.

But even in Brazil, Mr. Cardoso said, most of the estimated 600,000 HIV-positive Brazilians are unaware they have the virus. Women and the poor are particularly vulnerable. Mr. Cardoso said the private sector and the scientific community have a duty to ensure that life-saving drugs are available and affordable.

Other international leaders attending the conference, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, also are expected to push for greater patient access to AIDS medication, especially in developing countries.

During a tour of Africa last week, U.S. President George W. Bush highlighted his administration's pledge to spend $15 billion on AIDS over three years. The European Union has yet to match that commitment, although individual countries like France have promised to significantly increase their AIDS spending in developing countries.

Veronique Collard, coordinator for TRT-5, an umbrella group of French patient-activist organizations, said she hoped a donors conference - scheduled for Wednesday in Paris - would significantly increase international commitment to the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

"The Global Fund really lacks money, and we hope that this donors conference could be a moment when the governments of the North [industrialized world] finally give more money to the fund," said Ms. Collard, whose group also wants drug companies to concentrate on new ways to reduce negative side effects of new AIDS drugs and to increase access to new, experimental drugs for patients who develop resistance to existing treatments.

"What we are asking for is that at the end of Phase Two trials, and the beginning of Phase Three trials, the drug - if it works against resistance viruses - should be made available to people who are most in need of a new drug, and who may die, if the drug is not made available to them, she said.

Ms. Collard's group and other patient advocacy organizations also want AIDS patients to be able to sit on ethics panels for drug experiments. Currently, she says, very few companies and countries include patients on these panels. But France, for one is revising a law on ethics in clinical research, and Ms. Collard hopes the revised law will include this demand.