The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Indian hope and horror on AIDS

Bangkok, July 11: The world’s largest congregation on AIDS got off the ground today with India cutting a picture of hope as well as despair.

An overriding theme was an appeal to the US to green-light Indian-made three-in-one generic drugs fast. Such an approval would make cheaper drugs available to millions of patients worldwide.

However, a nightmarish statistical cloud, too, crept up on India. A report warned that India could overtake South Africa in two years as the country with the largest number of people with HIV infection.

The warning was issued by Treat Asia, a network of clinics, hospitals and research institutions run by an American foundation. Estimates put the number of HIV infected in India between 4.6 million and 5.1 million, while South Africa is said to have 5.3 million.

Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, who is part of the delegation representing India, said the country would prove the grim forecast wrong. “We will not let it happen,” he said.

Treat Asia added that on an average, India has only one trained doctor to treat every 5,000 HIV patients. The observation is significant because some organisations have been stressing that without enough trained doctors and health personnel, an increase in the supply of drugs would be of no use.

Treat Asia said a race among Asian pharmaceutical companies to produce cheap generic AIDS drugs could lead to misuse and the development of drug-resistant strains.

Not all officials involved in the fight against AIDS have accepted the study, pointing out that such findings could hamper the availability of low-cost drugs.

UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot said: “It is up to the governments of the countries where these companies are situated to see that they maintain quality. Cheaper generic drugs are welcome — it does not matter what colour the cat is as long as it can catch mice.”

The issue of access to generic anti-retroviral drugs — which can cost as little as $140 per patient a year in poor nations against $470 for branded products — has overshadowed the biennial meeting.

India’s Cipla was the first company in the world to offer AIDS drugs at a dollar a day. But Washington has barred groups receiving US government funds from buying the cheaper drugs, insisting that only drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration should be used.

The head of the global body responsible for financing the fight against AIDS called for rapid US approval of generic drugs for poor nations. Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said he hoped the FDA would approve the cheaper drugs in a month or two.

In May, the US announced a fast-track scheme for copycat drugs to get the FDA seal of approval for safety and quality.

Activists are sceptical about the FDA’s role. “We worry this is simply buying time for the multinationals to come out with their own fixed dose combinations,” said Mohga Kanal Smith, a campaigner with British-based charity Oxfam.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi will be present at the closing ceremony on Saturday.

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