Financial Times Profiles South African AIDS Drug ‘Campaigner’ Zackie Achmat
"Zackie Achmat is that most dangerous of things for political and business establishments: an embodiment of the moral ... high ground," the Financial Times reports in a piece on the founder of the South African Treatment Action Campaign. For many involved in the South African battle over AIDS drugs and treatment, Achmat has "come to personify" HIV, a virus that is "still taboo" in the country. A member of the African National Congress, Achmat is also a "veteran" of the battle to overturn South Africa's apartheid regime. In 1998 he founded TAC, a lobbying group that was the "spearhead" of the movement to bring low-cost AIDS medications to South Africa. The group was instrumental in the lawsuit brought by 39 drug companies against South Africa's 1997 Medicines and Related Substances Control Act, which would allow the manufacture and importation of cheaper generic AIDS medicines. TAC caused a six-week delay in the trial, which was settled last week, when the group won the right to submit a legal brief detailing the "damage caused by the disease." Achmat, who is HIV-positive, in 1998 came down with candidiasis, or thrush, a type of yeast infection that affects people with weakened immune systems. He was treated using Diflucan, a patented antifungal drug made by Pfizer Inc. In addition to the treatment for thrush, Achmat was offered antiretroviral medications to treat his HIV infection. Although such treatments can help keep potentially life-threatening infections like thrush from occurring, Achmat "refused" to take the medications because their $500 a month price tag kept them "beyond the reach" of most South Africans. Since then he has become an "articulate campaigner for affordable HIV medicines." Achmat explained, "When I raised the issue of treatment for AIDS in South Africa, people thought I was mad. I don't want to live in a world where people die every day simply because they are poor." Achmat began investigating AIDS medications and found a generic copy of Diflucan available for one-tenth of the price in Thailand, a discovery that "convinced him that, contrary to what the [drug] industry said, patents were indeed an obstacle to affordable medicines." Achmat said drug companies like Pfizer, which recently made a large-scale donation of Diflucan to South Africa, have been "goaded" into offering discounts by "terrible publicity" and would not have done so without pressure. Even the lower prices, he said, come with "strings attached."
Taking on the Government
Achmat's activism has not been limited to battling the drug companies. He has also criticized the South African government's reticence to provide medications to HIV-positive people. He recently accused Nono Simelela, head of the government's AIDS program, of "having the blood of children on her hands," after the government delayed approving a special license for the drug nevirapine to help reduce vertical transmission. The government "handcuff[s]" its ministers, Achmat says, partly because of President Thabo Mbeki's "public equivocations" about the cause of AIDS and his desire to find a "magic-bullet" cure. A lack of financial resources also hampers efforts. "It will become impossible to treat opportunistic infections on this scale. There will be millions of people with pneumonia and sweeping epidemics of meningitis" unless the government "faces the [AIDS] epidemic squarely," Achmat said. TAC has worked with the government on the lawsuit during a "cautious truce," and Achmat said that the end of the trial does not mean the alliance is over. "As in any marriage we are the foremost supporters when necessary and the staunchest critics when necessary," he added (Pilling/Degli Innocenti, Financial Times, 4/21-22).