Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Good News for Big Pharma: Resistant Gonorrhoea

Yesterday, I blogged about the fact that TB is on the rise worldwide. Funding for TB prevention, and even for treatment, are not commensurate with the threat to global health that this epidemic poses. And the rise of TB is often blamed on the current HIV pandemic. I would suggest that there is a TB epidemic of a level that can not wholly be explained by the HIV pandemic and that, like almost every disease and health issue aside from HIV, TB is being ignored.

Those heavily involved in the HIV industry, such as Michel Sidibe, the head of UNAIDS and Michel Kazatchkine, head of the UN Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria, deny that high levels of HIV funding have starved other diseases of cash. Kazatchkine claims that 'over a third of of overall funding of the Global Fund is actually going to strengthening health systems'. I don't know how he came up with this estimate but it seems to me that there are only certain aspects of health systems that are benefitting from HIV cash, and those aspects relate to HIV.

Kazatchkine says the money is not just going on condoms and drugs. I sometimes wonder if the money is even going on condoms, along with the logistics of ensuring that people use condoms all the time and properly. Even the claim that a lot of money is being spent on drugs can seem hollow when people supposed to be taking them often cannot do so because of lack of food. And 20% of the new HIV cases in Kenya every year come from vertical infection, from mothers transmitting HIV to their babies.

Treatment of people with HIV may well have exceeded expectations. And I would like to see every HIV positive person who needs treatment receiving the drugs and support they need. But since the recent expansion of HIV treatment, millions more have become infected. Prevention has been forgotten about. People like Kazatchkine and Sidibe like to argue that distinguishing between treatment and prevention is a false dichotomy, but this is not so. If treatment played such a huge role in preventing further infection, transmission rates would be much lower than they are. In fact, the majority of people in Kenya who are HIV positive do not know their status. Perhaps there shouldn't be a dichotomy between treatment and prevention, but there is.

And if you think the programmes to teach people about safe sex and to persuade them to use condoms have been successful, consider the figures for preventable and treatable sexually transmitted infections (STI). There are an estimated 340 million new cases of curable STIs every year. This is after over 20 years of preaching about safe sex in every country in the world. If people were practicing safe sex, transmission of most STIs would also be reduced. Prevention involves taking steps to ensure the infection is not transmitted. In the case of STIs, that could involve the correct use of condoms, minimally.

HIV treatment and care has received much of the money available for the disease. Kenya's official strategy papers make this quite clear. Prevention has received very little money and has been pretty unsuccessful, with 5 new infections for every two put on HIV treatment, globally. And HIV has been treated as if it's just an easy matter to round up people and give them some drugs. As a result, there is growing resistance to the few HIV drugs available in developing countries. This can be compared to TB, where it has long been recognised that you can't just send people away with some drugs and expect them to take them religiously for 9 months and never see them again.

If health solely involves treating sick people, how will you ensure the continuing health of those who are not (yet) sick? In the field of sexually transmitted diseases, gonorrhoea is now also developing resistance to the most commonly available drugs. There has been little recent research into alternative treatments for gonorrhoea (or TB) because, I would suggest, most of the money has been spent on other 'priorities' (Oh, and big pharma are waiting for public funding for their research, a very important component for these (private) companies). One of those priorities is HIV and despite ploughing a lot of money into condoms and safe sex campaigns, prevention has not received the level of funding it needs.

Yet more evidence of the lack of success of HIV prevention work is the level of pregnancies among women receiving HIV treatment. Women with untreated HIV have far lower fertility levels, so treatment should increase fertility. But women on HIV treatment should also be receiving advice about having unprotected sex and about unplanned pregnancies. I don't believe that all these HIV positive women are choosing to have more children, though some of them may be. Because other research has shown that the vast majority of pregnancies among women who are HIV positive were not planned.

Sidibe even seems to think that the global recession and climate change are distractions to the industry's fight against Aids. I would be hard pressed to find an attitude to which I am more opposed. He even has the cheek to suggest that HIV funding has not led to the neglect of other diseases because it has increased attention for TB, the two diseases being 'integrated', and that HIV prevention should take on a 'holistic approach'. Damn right, but I don't think his use of 'holistic' is the same as mine. But when is all this HIV money going to be spent on the many health issues that I and many others would claim have been ignored? Apparently, Sidibe and Kazatchkine think that's already taking place, and Sidibe feels that support from the big pharmaceutical companies is essential. Very funny.



Simon said...

When it comes to HIV treatment, much of the emphasis is placed on Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Even the cheapest of these, even generic versions produced in developing countries, are far too expensive for most people to take for the rest of their life. This is why the massive level of global HIV funding that goes into treatment cannot guarantee treatment for all who need it, it's just too expensive.

But in addition to ARVs, there is a cheap antibiotic called co-trimoxazole that can be used, especially in the early stages of treatment. While ARVs can reduce mortality by as much as 90%, co-trimoxazole can reduce mortality by 50% in the first 18 months of treatment.

Unlike ARVs, this antibiotic costs just a few pennies a day because generic versions of it are produced in developing countries and it is widely available. Now that its effectiveness is recognised, perhaps those presently calling for more funding for ARVs will also call for wider use of co-trimoxazole.

The cynic in me suggests that the movers and shakers in the HIV world won't give a damn about co-trimoxazole, given that it's cheap and produced by pharmaceutical companies not among the ones making vast profits from HIV drug sales. But perhaps they will use the fraction needed to give HIV positive people the best treatment affordable.

Even those with the temerity to make cynical remarks about Big Pharma can be wrong, presumably.

Here are two articles on co-trimozazole:


Simon said...

Doctors and experts are worried that because co-trimoxazole is being given out to people without reference to their CD4 count, resistance to what is a useful and cheap antibiotic may develop. It's no news that merely handing out drugs will not have much long term benefit, so let's hope that guidance on the use of this drug is made available to everyone involved in HIV treatment and care, no matter how informal their role.