Red Cross Urges Asia to Seize Opportunity to Prevent African-Scale HIV/AIDS Epidemic
There is currently a "strategic window of opportunity" to control the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Asia/Pacific region and to avoid an epidemic "of the scale that has devastated Africa," Dr. Alvaro Bermejo, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, warned yesterday at the 5th International Conference on Home and Community Care for Persons Living With HIV/AIDS being held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Associated Press reports that an estimated 5.4 million people in the region are infected with HIV, and nearly 500,000 people have died of AIDS-related complications this year. By comparison, some 28.1 million people in Africa are thought to be infected, the Associated Press adds (Associated Press, 12/17). "All community-based organizations ... must join forces to ensure that the pandemic is contained in Asia," Bermejo told conference attendees, adding that one approach will be to "scale up the home care component," as the Red Cross has done in Africa. "This would strengthen the capacity to deliver care to families and communities, through Red Cross volunteers, and help with advocacy for access to drugs," he said (Agence France-Presse, 12/17).
The Thai Success Model
The four-day conference, co-sponsored by the Thai Red Cross, the Thai government and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is being held in Asia for the first time to "help draw attention" to the rising number of HIV/AIDS cases in the region, Agence France-Presse reports. Thailand was chosen to host the conference because it is "on the forefront of HIV/AIDS response," according to regional IFRC head Stefan Seebacher. "In terms of people affected and need for care, it is one of the countries that is most relevant. It's a champion of AIDS response in Asia," he added (Agence France-Presse, 12/16). Thai authorities have involved religious and other non-governmental groups in responding to the country's HIV/AIDS crisis. By "spread[ing] the burden of care through the community," the government has reduced the stigma attached to the disease, BBC News reports. But HIV/AIDS is now rebounding in parts of the country, including those that had not originally been much affected (BBC News, 12/17). The conference, which runs through Thursday, will focus on care provision -- from "pure support and community care for different groups to the whole issue of discrimination and stigmatization, to human rights," Seebacher said. Bernard Gardiner, regional manager of HIV/AIDS programs for the Australian Red Cross, added that the conference will allow Red Cross societies "from all over the world to come together and learn from each other. For Asian societies it's good because we can learn from our African brothers who have been dealing with it a lot longer" (Agence France-Presse, 12/16).
Red Cross Calls for Use of Generic Drugs
Bermejo also voiced the IFRC's support for a change in World Trade Organization rules that would allow developing countries to import generic copies of patented AIDS drugs, Reuters reports. At a WTO ministerial meeting last month, delegates agreed to allow countries with a declared national health emergency to produce generic drugs, but some developing countries -- "without the money or technical capacity to produce" their own drugs -- have "complain[ed]" that the rules still prohibit them from importing generics. The WTO agreement "is one solution and one of the most realistic solutions. This has to be true for HIV and AIDS (drugs), but countries are also facing problems in multi-resistent tuberculosis and malaria," Bermejo noted. He added that Western drug companies have "little to lose" on the drugs because prohibitive prices keep the medications out of reach of most people in developing countries. Bermejo also advocated providing the drugs at little or no cost through governments, saying, "Providing treatment free is cost effective, in terms of hospital beds and absenteeism -- keeping breadwinners in the family" (Whiting, Reuters, 12/17).