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MSF's Dr David Wilson
"International pressure has limited Thailand's ability to get these drugs on to the market"
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Friday, 26 November, 1999, 11:51 GMT
Rich countries 'hinder fight against Aids'
About two per cent of Thais carry the HIV virus About 2% of Thais carry the HIV virus

The medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), has accused the West of forcing poor countries to buy expensive patented medicines instead of using cheaper generic drugs to fight Aids and other diseases.

It is calling for the rich countries, where the large drug companies are based, to "back off" and allow developing countries to use drugs they can afford.

MSF says the United States last year threatened Thailand with high import taxes on its jewellery and wood products unless it used patented medicines.

Aids Special Report
"Thailand is capable of producing good-quality cheap generic drugs, but local production has been limited by trade pressure from the US Government," MSF says in an article in the medical journal, The Lancet.

"The USA is the destination of a quarter of exports from Thailand so these threats are taken very seriously," it says

Aids drugs 'unaffordable'

The cost of Aids treatment in Bangkok, including some patented drugs, is nearly $700 per month, compared with an average monthly wage for an office worker of $110 per month.

The battle for free trade
As a result, MSF says, many of the one million people in Thailand infected with HIV can only buy half the drugs they need, saddling their families with huge debts.

The charity, which won the 1999 Nobel peace prize, says this is just one example of a broader problem caused by the high cost of patented drugs.

When Thailand began local production of one anti-Aids drug, zidovudine, the price fell from more than $300 per month to less than $100. Zidovudine, patented as AZT, is used in combination with other drugs.

One treatment for Aids-related meningitis, fluconazole, costs 70 cents per day in Thailand, but $20 per day in Kenya, where it is produced under patent.

MSF says treatments for tuberculosis, sleeping sickness and other tropical diseases are also inhibitively priced in many countries because of patent protection.

Countries that have come under pressure similar to that applied to Thailand, include South Africa and Malaysia, as well as other even poorer countries, MSF says.

Nathan Ford, one of the authors of the Lancet report, said that MSF wanted the developed world to "back off".

Secondly, he said, MSF wanted developing countries to be helped to understand that global trade accords on intellectual property rights permit them to produce generic drugs if the patented version is unaffordable in their country.

MSF is calling on the European Union to raise the issue of medicines during debates on intellectual property rights at a conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle.

Dr James Orbinski Orbinski: No new research on tropical diseases
"We want the EU to take a a lead role among states in ensuring that public health takes priority over trade interests," said James Orbinski, president of MSF's international council.

On Tuesday the charity launched a campaign to improve access to essential medicines in the developing world.

It said infectious diseases killed 17 million people worldwide every year, and that MSF doctors were forced to watch patients die either because drugs were too expensive, or because they were no longer produced.

It added that drug companies had stopped searching for cures to diseases that affect people in poor countries, concentrating instead on treatments for complaints such as impotence and obesity.

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See also:
26 Nov 99 |  Africa
Moi: Aids a 'national disaster'
26 Nov 99 |  Medical notes
Aids drugs and the developing world
23 Nov 99 |  Health
HIV hits 50 million
24 Nov 99 |  Health
Medicines plea for poorest countries
07 Nov 99 |  Aids
Experts tackling Asian AIDS explosion
23 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Developing countries fight for free trade
18 Sep 99 |  Africa
Aids drug trade dispute ends

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