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“Fire in the Blood”: how Big Pharma prevented millions in Africa from receiving affordable anti-AIDS drugs

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by Siji Jabbar

Fire in the Blood poster (660x300)

It would be a bit weird for a director to not talk up his or her film, but when filmmaker Dylan Gray says Fire in the Blood is about one of the greatest crimes in human history, it’s hard to disagree. The documentary provides evidence of the way big Western pharmaceutical companies blocked access to low-cost anti-AIDS drugs in Africa, causing an estimated 10 million deaths. All because they wanted to maximise profits. One former pharmaceutical exec put it thus: “Drug companies are not there to protect the third world, they are there to make money – pure and simple.” But the irony of this tragedy is that Big Pharma’s profits wouldn’t have been much affected if it hadn’t blocked access to low-cost anti-retroviral drugs because most of those affected in Africa couldn’t afford to be treated with Big Pharma’s drugs anyway. The low-cost drugs were their only chance.

If you were alive in the eighties, you’ll remember how terrified everyone was about HIV/AIDS. There were conflicting accounts of how you could become infected, and many initially thought only gay people could become infected. Perhaps this was one of the reasons, besides general fear, that 51 percent of Americans at the time favoured the quarantine of AIDS patients; shocking to remember that now, but such was the fear and ignorance (the wall between civilised conduct and the law of the jungle is but a thin membrane). Until 1996 when anti-retroviral medications were introduced, being diagnosed with HIV was basically considered a death sentence. Then pharmaceutical companies developed anti-retroviral drugs, a godsend.

The new drugs were effective in helping patients live with the disease, but they were also expensive. Thousands were dying every day, simply because they couldn’t afford the anti-retrovirals. Then Cipla, a major Indian pharmaceutical firm, started manufacturing an affordable generic alternative, and soon felt the wrath of the patent holders who wasted no time in suing the firm. The American pharmaceutical industry, as you probably know, represents one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, so it had the government on its side, and the White House threatenedg sanctions against South Africa in retaliation for importing generic AIDS drugs.

How did Big Pharma defend this morally-repugnant position? One racist defence offered was that poorer Africans can’t read instructions on the packaging or tell the time, so they’re ill-suited to following any medication program. I promise you, this documentary will make you really, really angry, but it’ll also give you hope because it’s also the story of the group of people that came together to break the blockade, eventually getting the pharmaceutical industry to drop its lawsuit, and profiles individuals like Ugandan doctor Peter Mugyenyi, one of the world’s foremost specialists and researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS and author of the book Genocide by Denial: How Profiteering from HIV/AIDS Killed MillionsZackie Achmat, a South African activist who refused AIDS treatment until affordable drugs were available to all who needed them, and Supreme Court judge Edwin Cameron, the first person in public office in South Africa to acknowledge having HIV/Aids, who decided to speak out after a poor black woman in Durban was killed three weeks after she spoke on the radio about having HIV, which made him realise: “if [this woman], without any protection, living in a township, not behind a palisade like I do in my middle-class suburb in Johannesburg, not with the income of a judge, not with the constitutional protection… I should speak out… .”

You won’t leave the cinema with a sense of relief, though. Anti-retroviral drugs are now being manufactured in Kampala (by QCI, a joint venture between Cipla and local partner Quality Chemicals Ltd) and South Africa, and will soon be manufactured in Mozambique, too, but when you read on QCI’s website that‘India has ratified the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) accord under the World Trade Organization which will bar it from continuing to provide Uganda with affordable medicines,’ you know the pharmaceutical lobby is still hard at work. That  TRIPS agreement is one of the first things mentioned in this DemocracyNow feature on the documentary, as well as the last:

The system that allowed the tragedy is still very much in place, so this could easily happen again, and it can go on for years before people get about it. As Dylan Gray said in an interview, the most common response of those who’ve seen the documentary is “why didn’t I know more about this?”

The facts of the story are astonishing, and the documentary is intelligent and thought-provoking, so try to see it if you get the chance. If you live in London, it’s being screened this Thursday at Riverside Studios (as part of their DocHouse Thursdays programme), , and will be followed by a Q&A with Executive Producer Christopher Hird and the National Coordinator for Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, Kush Naker. (Incidentally, new HIV infections are falling dramatically in Africa,according to the UN).

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel

1 Comment

  1. John says:

    – OMG Marlene! These images are altoluseby outstanding and bring back such warm (sizzling hot?!? ) memories. Can it really be two years ago that we arrived in Zim? It seems like yesterday as well as a lifetime away, if that makes any sense?

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