World AIDS Day, December 1, 2001: Time to Start Treatment

AIDS Treatment is Working in Developing Countries

New York/Geneva, World AIDS Day 2001 — On the occasion of World AIDS Day, December 1, 2001, the international medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is challenging national governments and the international community to put words into action in tackling AIDS treatment in developing countries. Small-scale treatment programs set up by MSF and other organizations and governments in developing countries are helping show the way. Anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment may not be easy, but it is definitely possible. In Guatemala, Thailand, Malawi, and other developing countries, hundreds of people who would have died are instead able to lead normal, productive lives with access to ARV treatment.

In MSF's projects, ARV triple therapy is part of a comprehensive approach to caring for HIV/AIDS patients. MSF's first experiences treating patients with ARVs in the field have been very encouraging: although the treatment is no miracle cure, it extends and improves the quality of life of people living with HIV/AIDS. In the United States, where ARV treatment has been available since 1996, the new drugs have reduced mortality by up to 90%. In Brazil, a country with a very effective national AIDS program, ARV treatment saved the government US$ 472 million between 1997 and 1999, because fewer patients were hospitalized or treated for opportunistic infections.

"Gaining access to ARV drugs here in Guatemala is revolutionary, because in most of Central America, these medicines are not available," said Belen Pedrique, MD, Medical Coordinator for MSF's AIDS project in Guatemala. "We've seen the quality of our patients' lives improve dramatically. Thanks to the treatment, they suffer from fewer opportunistic infections and can return to work and take care of their families again. Being able to provide treatment completely changes the perspective of caring for people living with HIV/AIDS."

"Since prices of ARV drugs have fallen, and will continue to fall, as a result of public pressure and generic competition, there is now no excuse not to start ARV treatment wherever possible," said Bernard Pécoul, MD, director of MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "National governments of developing countries must show leadership, and donor countries must give the financial support necessary to set up and expand treatment programs. Non-governmental organizations can only show that treatment is possible, but we don't have the mandate or the resources to mount large national treatment schemes—that is a job for governments," Dr Pécoul concluded.

Access to affordable medicines remains a major obstacle in treating patients in developing countries, but it is not the only challenge. MSF will continue working with its local counterparts and partners on prevention, counseling, monitoring, and palliative care. Making existing treatment accessible to more people, reducing the cost of drugs and tests, and simplifying treatments to better suit the demanding conditions in developing countries are among MSF's priorities in the coming months and years.

MSF has HIV/AIDS programs in almost 30 countries around the world. Since 2000, the organization has launched nine small-scale programs providing ARV treatment in Cambodia, Cameroon, Guatemala, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Thailand.