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Health Coalition Campaigns for Affordable Drugs

UN Integrated Regional Information Network (Nairobi), 12 May 2001

The Kenya Coalition for Access to Essential Medicines on Thursday called for Kenyan parliamentarians to ensure that public health takes precedence over private financial interest "to ensure that essential medicines are affordable."

At a press conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the Coalition warned that millions were at risk of disease and death unless the government made full use of World Trade Organisation (WTO) guidelines which would allow it to shop around the world for the cheapest offer of patented drugs and to issue licences for the production or importation of cheaper generic medicines.

Kenyan parliamentary committees are scheduled to debate the Industrial Property Bill, which would enable Kenya to import and manufacture generic versions of patented medicines (including anti-retroviral AIDS drugs), before its introduction to parliament in June.

"Every Kenyan has a friend or family member suffering from HIV related infections. The Industrial Property Bill is a unique opportunity to ensure that Kenyan patients and doctors can legally access cheaper medicines to prolong and save lives," said Dr Christopher Ouma of Action Aid, speaking for the Kenya Coalition.

The Coalition, a campaign group of NGOs, HIV/AIDS activists and civil society organisations, on Thursday expressed concern that the multinational drug companies could put pressure on the government to drop or amend the WTO's "vital, legal and internationally recognised safeguards" when it addressed the Industrial Property Bill - a piece of legislation which could ensure the right of access to affordable medicines for millions of people suffering from AIDS and other diseases. [for further information, see the Coalition press release at: http://www.msf.org/]

Multinational pharmaceutical companies went to court in South Africa in March, challenging a 1997 law the government had passed in an attempt to make HIV/AIDS drugs more affordable but which the drugs companies maintained infringed on their trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) and their right to earn profit from research and innovation.

The multinationals dropped the case in mid-April, ending an international battle that deeply embarrassed the companies as human rights groups and AIDS activists engaged in what they considered a landmark battle to secure medication for some 26 million people in Africa infected with HIV.

Mirryena Deeb, chief executive of South Africa's Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA), was quoted as saying that the case was dropped as a "result of a negotiating process". She said the government had agreed to consult the companies when they drafted the regulations on implementing the law.

Despite much publicity around discount offers on drug prices from various multinational companies, these were no substitute for a legal system which would ensure long-term sustainable access to affordable medicines, the Kenya Coalition stated on Thursday.

"The company offers are only for AIDS drugs and have only been offered under heavy public pressure. These do not cover medicines for other life-threatening diseases, like TB and malaria. Kenya cannot afford to rely on the charity of profit making companies for its future," it said.

One of the key reasons why people die of HIV/AIDS is that anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and other essential medicines are too expensive, according to the Coalition. In May, the cheapest price available in certain hospitals came to US $1,330 to $1,620 per patient per year but most hospitals and individuals continued to pay much more, it said.

With half of Kenya's population earning under $1 per day, the cost of major drug companies' anti-retroviral cocktails - sometimes over $4,000 a year - is well beyond the scope of all but the very wealthiest, Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday.

In Kenya, where an estimated 2.5 million adults are HIV positive and some 500 people die each day from HIV-related infections, ARV treatment was believed to be restricted to a total of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, according to the Coalition. [for HIV/AIDS fact-sheet on Kenya, go to: http://www.unaids.org/hivaidsinfo/statistics/june00/fact_sheets/africa.html]

"Multinational pharmaceutical companies are among the most profitable industries in the world," the Kenyan Coalition stated. "Africa makes up just over one of the global pharmaceutical market, and Kenya but a minute fraction of that."

"Doctors are tired of not treating patients when drugs exist," said campaign spokesman, Dr Christopher Ouma. "Kenya must be able to shop around the world for the cheapest drugs. The MPs must not miss this opportunity to include life-saving WTO/TRIPS safeguards, such as parallel importing and compulsory licensing, in the bill."

Copyright 2001 UN Integrated Regional Information Network. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).