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  • Writer's pictureStudents for Global Health UCL

Anti-Retrovirals: Is Access Universal?

As we come to the end of Positively Red Week, we must remember that the fight against HIV/AIDs is not yet over. One of the biggest issues that needs to be overcome in order to bring an end to the pandemic revolves around access to anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment. These drugs have taken AIDs from a sure death sentence to a treatable disease. Yet why are so many people are still dying of HIV/AIDs and why has there been such disparity in access to these essential medicines?

When ARVs were approved in 1996, the number of AIDs-related deaths in the US saw an immediate decline. Yet this downwards trajectory took another 11 years to be seen in Africa; until 2007, people in Africa had no access to these drugs. Millions of deaths occurred. But why were so many people denied life-saving treatment? 

Well, the sad fact of the matter is that the ARVs were expensive. Patent laws enabled pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs at sky high prices, unaffordable to Africans. While countries such as Thailand and India were able to produce generic versions of ARVs, African countries were unable to follow suit due to restrictive trade laws imposed by the World Trade Organisation.

At this point you might be wondering why African governments didn't just ignore the patent laws and import generic drugs? Well unfortunately retaliation was feared, in the form as trade sanctions from the WTO. But the lack of access to ARVs in Africa definitely did not go unnoticed - people actively protested the patents raising international awareness of the issue. A campaign set up in 1998, the Treatment Action Campaign, fought for access to generic ARVs. After a long fight, generic drugs were imported into Africa without any backlash from Western countries or the WTO. This lack of retribution from Western countries to the importation of generic drugs into Africa most surely would not have happened had if the pharmaceutical companies hadn't faced such immense criticism for their actions.

So whilst breakthroughs have been made with regards AIDs treatment, through the initial production of ARVs and now the increasing access to these life saving drugs - we still have a way to go before bringing an end to the HIV/AIDs pandemic in Africa, in addition to the rest of the world. If you’ve found this at all interesting, this whole controversy over access to antiretrovirals is described in Dylan Mohan Gray’s 2013 film, ‘Fire in the Blood’ - I’d recommend a watch!

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