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Red Cross backs poor countries in Aids drug debate

AIDS activists have been protesting in Africa against the high cost of vital HIV drugs.

(Keystone Archive)

International aid agencies have weighed in on the side of poor countries in an increasingly acrimonious debate about whether pharmaceutical companies should make Aids drugs available cheaply to poorer countries.

In a statement on Monday, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies said drug companies needed to put humanitarian concerns before commercial ones, and find ways of making drugs available to disease victims in poorer countries.

"Médecins sans frontières" (MSF) expressed its concern by launching a petition on its website calling on an alliance of 39 pharmaceutical giants - including Switzerland's Roche, Novartis and Janssen-Cilaq - to drop legal proceedings against the South African government over a law allowing the importation of cut-price drugs.

The case, which came before the high court in Pretoria last week, has now been postponed until April 18.

The president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, Astrid Heiberg, said pharmaceutical companies were not doing enough to make life-saving drugs available in poorer countries.

"Lives are being lost because access is being denied to lifesaving medicine for those living with HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases," she said. "This is completely unacceptable. Pharmaceutical companies and the international community can and must find a way around this."

MSF said it was important that South Africa should be able to make its own decisions on how to help its people. Over four million people in the country are infected with the HIV virus.

Drug companies claim the high price of patented drugs is necessary to cover research and development costs. However, some companies have recently softened their position, and moved to cut drug prices for developing countries.

Last week, the US drug firm Merck said it would supply drugs at cost price to several developing countries.

But activists say the companies' efforts do not go far enough and that even at reduced prices the quantity of drugs needed means they remain prohibitively expensive.

The Red Cross says it is calling on its membership, which includes 176 national societies and millions of volunteers, to back countries like South Africa in their search for more affordable treatments.

swissinfo with agencies


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