HIV-Positive Romanian Children at Risk as Country Struggles with High Price of Anti-AIDS Drugs
Due to the high price of anti-AIDS drugs, Romania's "deep poverty" and the country's "weak government," antiretroviral drugs are "beyond the reach" of many of Romania's 9,000 HIV-infected children, the New York Times reports. As a result, "hundreds" of these children are now "at risk of dying rapidly." During the 1980s, Romanian children received blood transfusions for normal medical problems and surgeries, but transfusions also served as a kind of "pick me up" for anemic or undernourished children. During that period, the blood supply became contaminated with HIV, and only after the overthrow and execution of the country's leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989, did health officials become open about the fact that tens of thousands of babies and children had received HIV-infected blood. Even though other nations pledged their assistance in fighting AIDS, blood testing improved, hospitals began using disposable needles and nurses were retrained, the virus "multiplied and sapped [children's] immune systems," the Times reports. Now, the Romanian government estimates that more than half of Europe's HIV-infected children are in Romania.
Discounts Out of Reach
AIDS "cocktails" reached Romania in 1997 and 1998, resulting in a sharp decline in AIDS-related death rates. However, Romania's governments "have proved incapable of coming to grips with" the virus, failing to "push" drug companies for price cuts for anti-AIDS drugs, to collect taxes to fill state coffers and to attract foreign investment to help stave off further poverty. Furthermore, as hospitals deal with the "bungling of the national health budget," they have taken children off the cocktails, which cost $10,000 per child annually. The Times reports that one doctor asks drug companies to put children on their drug trials in order to help some children get the drugs. Some drug companies do donate medicines, but often the donations amount to only a few months' worth of drugs. Even wholesale drug prices remain high, and there "are no imminent plans for price cuts." In addition, last May five drug companies announced that they would begin negotiating 80% cuts in their AIDS drug prices to poor countries, including Romania. However, while Senegal, Swaziland and Uganda have begun negotiations, Romania "has not even formally expressed interest," the Times reports. "Very few" Romanians who care for AIDS patients know that generic antiretrovirals are sold much cheaper than what Western drug companies charge, however the Romanian Ministry of Health has agreed that it will not import the generic drugs in order to keep "patents in place." Maria Georgescu, executive director of the Romanian Association Against AIDS, said, "There have been three changes of the minister of health in four years. It's chaos. Some talk of seizing the patents, but then they leave." She added, "No one in government will do this by themselves. Not unless they have a personal interest, like an HIV-infected friend or something. This is Romania. Here the bureaucrats say: 'What HIV people? We need to get rid of them'" (McNeil, New York Times, 1/7).