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Aids: The Fear Syndrome

ICFTU Online. . ., 062/000401/DD, 1 April 2000

Durban April 1 2000 (ICFTU OnLine): AIDS generates fear and discrimination. It is the invisible killer which feeds on poverty, war, and societies in economic crisis. One of the best forms of controlling it is being blocked by the greed of the multinational pharmaceutical companies, which is preventing the production of cheap drugs to cure it. said ICFTU General Secretary Bill Jordan, on the launch of Aids: The Fear Syndrome, a new report out today.

The report has been produced for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions’ 17th World Congress in Durban this week. It coincides with a one-day trade union Seminar on AIDS on April 1 preceding the Congress. A Resolution on Fighting Aids has also been submitted to Congress.

So far AIDS has killed 16 million people, of these 14 million are living in Africa. Every day it kills a further 6,800 men, women and children. 70% of its victims are found in sub-Saharan Africa, a region which has less than 10% of the world total population. Half of those infected in 1999 were aged under 25. AIDS is expected to be responsible for the doubling of infant mortality, tripling of child mortality and the shortening of life expectancy in Africa countries in the next 20 years.

It is flourishing in many of the world’s poorest countries, countries where the great proportion of resources are going to repay massive debts, which are crippling the countries’ development. Ironically, these same countries are often weighed down by structural adjustment policies which force them to slash budgets for services such as health, which could help to prevent and cure AIDS.

The rule in the spread of AIDS, says the report, is that poverty engenders AIDS which engenders further poverty. AIDS claims the most productive members of society—young men and women, many of them teachers or health workers or engineers, which could help the country to escape from the poverty which produced AIDS in the first place.

Wars also encourage the spread of AIDS, because soldiers are known to be one of the high risk groups. Armies recruit young men, who are removed from their homes, who have recourse to prostitution, where AIDS multiplies. Rape is another of the grim facts of war, which also helps to spread AIDS. In Africa, for the first time, infected women aged 15 to 49 outnumber infected men

AIDS is called the invisible killer because the shame associated with it leads people to deny that it is the killer, and which means that it is difficult to persuade people of the seriousness of the pandemic. While families, workplaces and the whole fabric of some countries are being destroyed, there remain thousands of young men who are dying of pneumonia, or tuberculosis or some other respectable disease.

The report lays the blame for the continuing spread of AIDS, and the lack of a cure which is within the budgets of poor people and poor governments firmly at the feet of the multinational pharmaceutical companies, and the WTO. In 1995, following pressure from the pharmaceutical giants, the WTO agreed to the Intellectual Property Agreement, whereby multinationals have the sole right to produce the vaccines which could cure AIDS.

Because of price setting, a years’ supply of drugs to treat prevent HIV developing into full blown AIDS costs US$10,000 per person. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS has spread the furthest and the fastest, 42% of the population live on less than US$1 a day.

Under WTO rules, the market determines the price of the drugs, so those which are in the most demand become the most expensive. For example, one drug Pentamidine which for years has been a cheap, efficient drug for treating sleeping sickness, (endemic in Africa), was found to be successful in treating a form of pneumonia, which affects a large number of people with AIDS. As a consequence its price has shot up, and it is no longer even within the financial reach of those who formerly used it for sleeping sickness.

The study points out that trade unions are in a strong position to take up the fight against AIDS, and this is mirrored in a draft Congress Resolution which calls for the launch of a world-wide campaign against HIV/AIDS.

The resolution points out that trade unions form a unique network, both nationally and internationally, which have shown itself to be in the forefront of campaigns for social rights such as banning child or slave labour. This network could be mobilised for the campaign. Nationally, unions can, and have, played a role in the prevention of the spread of AIDS through education at the workplace.

In the future, where unions are able to organise in the informal sector, this will put them in good position to reach groups which are most at risk from HIV, such as migrant workers, casual workers, workers from ethnic minorities, prostitutes and drug users, groups where AIDS spreads quickly.

Nationally unions are encouraged to lobby their governments and employers to support health and safety programmes, and to offer support to families which have suffered from the impact of AIDS.

Internationally unions are being asked to lobby relevant UN institutions such as the ILO, the WTO and UNAIDS, to commit more resources to fighting AIDS. Perhaps one of unions most important roles in the international field will be to campaign for the provision of low-cost life-saving drugs, including through the redefinition of the WTO’s intellectual property agreement to enable the produce and trade of products under patent where these are life-saving drugs. Note: the Release of the Report coincides with an ICFTU Symposium on Fighting AIDS on April 1 at the International Conference Centre, Durban

For further details please contact ICFTU Press Department on: ++322 224 0212