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Low-cost HIV/AIDS drugs will continue to be made by India

Reassurance has been given by India that it will continue to produce low-cost generic HIV/AIDS drugs, despite a possible free-trade agreement with the European Union (EU).

Campaigners, including the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) were concerned that any trade agreement might block India from making the low-cost anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs used by poor and developing nations to treat patients with HIV/AIDS. The generic ARVs have an annual cost of around 137 dollars per person, a fraction of the price of patented ARVs sold by western pharmaceutical companies.

These drugs companies have been lobbying for greater protection of intellectual property rights, ever since countries like India began producing cheaper copies. A senior figure from UNAIDS spoke out on the issue this week and warned that millions of people across the world could die if India stopped producing the low-cost drugs. UNAIDS estimates that over 85 per cent of people being treated for HIV/AIDS worldwide are reliant on India’s low-cost ARV drugs.

Yesterday, Reuters reported a promise had been issued by the Indian government that production of the generic HIV/AIDS drugs will continue. In a joint statement issued by UNAIDS and the Indian government, the Indian Minister for Commerce, Anand Sharma, affirmed that India retains its “full commitment to ensure that quality generic medicines, including anti-retroviral drugs, are seamlessly available....to all countries”.

Currently around 6.6 million people worldwide have access to ARV drugs, though an estimated 15 million are in need of treatment. And with growing pressure on budgets, some governments are debating whether funding should be diverted from HIV/AIDS to other infectious diseases. But at a recent conference on the disease in South Africa, experts argued that still not enough is being done. And rather than taking money away from health programmes, HIV/AIDS experts argue that tackling the disease has encouraged governments to spend more on health; globally, health budgets have more than doubled between the 1990s and 2005.

HIV/AIDS experts do concede that improvements in AIDS programmes have not always been carried across into other areas of healthcare systems. However, though funding initially focuses on ARVs and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, treatment often then expands to tackle illnesses such as tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer. India’s commitment to the continued production of low-cost ARVs has therefore been welcomed as a positive step for healthcare generally, as well as for those living with HIV/AIDS. As one worker in the field said, there is nothing worse than the “abject terror” of someone with HIV/AIDS who is told “we have what it takes to keep you alive, but we won’t pay for it.”

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