Anti-AIDS groups demand urgency to match crisis

AIDS organisations meeting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Sunday urged political, religious and community leaders to step up, expand and intensify the fight against the disease, and provide better leadership and guidance to society in the face of the scale of the pandemic.

"The current budgets and support levels do not reflect the urgency of the pandemic," the activist organisations asserted, pointing out that the disease had now infected some 2.2 million people in the country, and was claiming 700 lives a day.

The organisations urged Kenya's leaders to address structural problems in the health sector, fight discrimination against HIV-infected people, and help society overcome the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS issues.

They also demanded the speedy introduction of cheaper, generic AIDS drugs as provided under in the new Industrial Property Act, which became law in Kenya on 1 May.

The groups issuing Sunday's call for an intensified push against HIV/AIDS included the National AIDS Control Council of Kenya; Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya; The Association for People With AIDS in Kenya; the Post-Test Club; Soul to Soul; the Kenya AIDS and Drugs Alliance; Action Aid (Kenya); and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

They were marking the 19th International AIDS Memorial Day at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi with public mourning for the loss of loved ones and a call to strengthen the commitment to fighting the pandemic.

Political, religious and community leaders could help tackle stigma "by talking about these issues at public gatherings, or setting examples by visiting and hugging AIDS patients," said Dr Chris Ouma of Action Aid.

It would also be helpful if leaders and community figures in Kenya wore the symbolic anti-AIDS red ribbon in public places and forums, and adopted an open attitude to HIV/AIDS, Sunday's press statement said.

The activist organisations called for the urgent introduction of cheaper anti-AIDS drugs, after the coming into effect earlier this month of the Industrial Property Act, which effectively eased restrictions on the importation of generic drugs.

The importation of these drugs, including antiretrovirals (ARVs) which have proven effective in treating HIV-positive patients, was previously restricted by the patent and intellectual property rights of the transnational companies which developed them.

The estimated cost of ARVs in Kenya is between US $2.5 and $5 per day, while the average Kenyan income is about $1 per day. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled in November 2001 that developing countries could use generic drugs in times of health crises, overriding the patent rights held by major pharmaceutical companies.

The WTO agreement and the 1 May passage into law of the Kenya Industrial Property Act have placed the responsibility for increasing Kenyans' access to life-saving medicines on the Kenyan government and other leaders, according to campaigners.

The Indian High Commissioner to Kenya, Rajiv Bhatia, said at the weekend that three pharmaceutical companies from India - a leading producer of generic essential medicines - were at an advanced stage of planning to begin manufacturing ARVs within Kenya, the East African Standard newspaper reported on Monday, 20 May. "Sympathising is not enough ... We need to act fast," he added.

As yet, cheaper drugs were still unavailable, because the Pharmacy and Poisons Board - the country's drugs registration authority - had not yet processed applications for cheaper drugs, according to Sunday's press statement.

The slow, bureaucratic and corruption-prone process by which drug registration was being effected rendered it necessary for a new system to be established, it said.

What Kenya needed, overall, was "a more focused, results-oriented approach to fighting the pandemic," the organisations added. "It remains difficult to mourn the people who died of AIDS in the past until we do everything in our power to ensure a minimum of casualties in the future."