Socialist Worker

Priorities of the rich kill the poor

In the final column in our series Noel Halifax talks about the alternative to the status quo

Issue No. 2258

Aids continues to spread across the world. There were estimated to be 33.3 million people living with HIV/Aids in 2009—mostly in the Global South.

But we know how to defeat it. Research into how to contain and cure the virus—and find a vaccine to protect people from it—is possible.

Safe sex should be promoted to everyone.

The spread of the virus can be halted with the distribution of free condoms and proper cleaning of blood used in transfusions. In some parts of the world, clean needle exchanges are an important part of stopping the virus being passed on.

The whole population needs to be educated in ways that empower people to make informed choices.

Finally, people already infected must have access to currently available drugs and have their health monitored.

You would think this is simple. But no part of this programme is happening—and has been fought by powerful forces.

These include governments, particularly the US, religious leaders and the pharmaceutical industry.

But the most powerful of all is market forces.

This is a perfect example of capitalism distorting the use of knowledge from doing good to making profit. Millions die and suffer needlessly while the virus spreads.

Promoting safe sex is the obvious, cheap and most effective thing to do until we have a vaccine. But even today it’s not being done.

Instead a disastrous policy of advocating abstinence from sex outside marriage is pushed by many groups central to defining policy—including the US government, the Catholic church and evangelical groups.

The Brazilian government developed a very effective strategy of working with prostitutes to combat the spread of the illness—checking their health and getting them to use and promote the use of condoms with their clients.

But in 2003 the US said that countries had to denounce prostitution in order to receive aid. In 2006, USAID declared Brazil to be ineligible for the renewal of a $48 million Aids grant.

Brazil kept up the policy, but it was undermined and has not been used in other countries with similar problems.

There is widespread opposition among Western governments to providing access to free and clean needles for drug users as it “promotes drug use”.

Then there is the struggle over sex education. Should it be on how to have enjoyable and safe sex? Or should it promote monogamy and marriage?

Very few countries have open and honest sex education—and they are in the places where HIV/Aids is less widespread.

Finally there are the drug companies and market forces.

The companies are only there to make profit. One of their costs is research into new products—drugs to sell and patent to get a monopoly.

It is said they need this profit to fund research.

But drug companies spend more on advertising than they do on research, and an awful lot of money goes to fight to retain their monopoly.

But its goes deeper than this. The whole system delays and distorts research. It stops those who need drugs from accessing them.

Drug companies do research to make the most profit with least costs.

This often means making minor changes to an existing drug to get a new patent on it.

But fundamental research like that for a cure to HIV is expensive and makes profit uncertain. Nearly all breakthroughs in this field have come from publicly funded research.

In the past this was often government research.

But with the cuts, privatisation and the profit motive more dominant, the future is grim.

In London spending on HIV prevention is being cut by over 35 percent.

There is increasing evidence that HIV/Aids is seen as a soft target and funding for research into it is one of the first things to go.

What is happening in Britain under the Tories is mirrored around the world.

Many programmes and services won in the teeth of opposition from the right are under threat again.

In the Global South, the disease scars whole countries. In Zimbabwe, Aids has orphaned over a million children and more than 14 percent of the adult population is infected.

Different solutions, and different emphases, are needed to combat the problem globally.

But central elements of safe sex—religion being removed from sex education and drug companies putting research before profit—will make a huge difference.

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