Friday, November 6, 2009

HIV Treatment is Necessary, But Not Sufficient, For Prevention

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has published a report on reduced funding for HIV treatment, from the World Bank's Global Fund and the US Government's President's Emergency Fund for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) in particular. MSF have good reason to be worried.

The pharmaceutical industry successfully lobbied governments and international institutions to pay huge amounts of money for antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that most of the people suffering from HIV/Aids would never be able to afford. In fact, the governments of countries with high rates of HIV/Aids would never be able to afford these drugs, either.

Countries like Kenya have the option to produce generic versions of ARV drugs at a fraction of the price that is currently being paid. But most countries, including Kenya, have chosen not to exercise this right, preferring to enact laws that make it unlikely that the country can produce or even purchase such cheap generic versions. Good relations with the pharmaceutical industry seems to be more important to them than saving the lives of their citizens.

MSF are right, huge ARV rollouts cannot now be stopped without endangering the lives of millions of people who are HIV positive and even people who are, as yet, HIV negative. But rather than arguing for the money to keep coming, in fast increasing amounts, they could concentrate on finding ways of reducing the cost of treatment so that it can continue and even expand.

How much of the billions of dollars of aid money have been spent on building factories to produce drugs that people need in Kenya? I haven't heard of any. Most of the money has been spent in ways that don't go on to produce anything or increase the country's sustainability or self reliance. The funds have mostly been spent as if HIV is just an emergency.

Well, it is something of an emergency, but there are underlying factors that are not part of an emergency. The country has a decaying health service, decaying education sector and a small and decaying infrastructure. People are poor, unhealthy, badly educated and unable to access vital services, such as clean water and proper sanitation. These are the things that face the majority of Kenyans every day, whether they are HIV positive or not.

Money spent on drugs, regardless of the overall condition of health systems is, to a large extent, wasted. Many drugs go out of date before being distributed, they get to people unprepared to take them properly, they are taken by people who are dying of other, easily prevented and treated illnesses, etc. My argument is not that ARVs should not be purchased and distributed and prescribed; it is that there needs to be a proper, accessible health service for all this to happen.

There is not a proper health infrastructure in Kenya, there hasn't been for a long time and increased HIV/Aids funding has not brought about a health infrastructure that serves people's needs. True, there are many clinics and institutions that were not here before HIV/Aids and wouldn't have even appeared. But these mostly deal with HIV/Aids, not other, basic health problems that people face.

My argument is also directed at the emphasis on HIV/Aids treatment over prevention. MSF's Goemaere is right to object to the prevention/treatment 'dichotomy'. Of course treatment has a positive effect on prevention efforts. But it is not enough to try to treat our way out of the epidemic. This is clearly not working and much more needs to be done to prevent new infections. Otherwise, the aim to treat everyone who requires treatment becomes even less attainable and less sustainable that it is right now.

People who are HIV positive need more than just drugs, or even treatment. There are a lot of threats to their health and welfare than HIV. They are dying because they are too far from the hospital, because the hospital is not up to the job of caring for them, because they are entitled to benefits they don't know about or that have been stolen by someone else, because they are poor and isolated and not considered important enough. But there just aren't the services needed to support chronically sick people and these will not just appear because the country is swamped by HIV/Aids (treatment) related institutions and programmes.

Those who are HIV negative need to stay that way and this won't happen by rolling out ARVs, alone. They have needs that are far more important and urgent that the possibility that they may become infected by something that won't kill them for many years. Most won't live for very long anyway, for a huge variety of reasons that are not being addressed right now.

Goemaere recognises the false dichotomy of treatment/prevention, but fails to see that increasing treatment while effectively ignoring prevention will not combat HIV/Aids in the long run. Assuming that HIV treatment will also prevent infections is not enough because it doesn't prevent enough infections and it never will. And treatment will never be as efficient as it should be if health, education, infrastructure and other social services continue to be ignored.


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