Lost Opportunity

South African President Hedges on Cause of AIDS, Ignores Access to Medicine

At the end of the march, South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang vowed to "fight tooth and nail" for better access to medicines. "We can collectively in Africa manufacture these drugs," she said, adding that her government is considering granting local companies license to produce generic versions of anti-HIV drugs. Drug companies oppose such "compulsory licensing" because it breaks their patents.

Meanwhile, African physicians told horrific tales of trying to treat patients with no money. Christopher Ouma, a doctor who works with the Nobel Prize–winning group Médecins Sans Frontières in Nairobi, said that AIDS has flooded hospitals: "Patients share beds almost all the time, up to three in a bed," he said. As for the expensive anti-HIV drugs, "We prefer not to tell patients they exist," he said. "It's a cruel joke. They cost $10,000 a year, but the patient makes only $300."

The march, which was punctuated by Zulu dances, brought ordinary people into the streets. Many were carrying pre-printed placards with the bloody handprint ACT UP made famous in America. But many other signs were handpainted, such as one that read simply, "MBEKI PLEASE HELP US." Monica Ishmael, a shop steward in the South African Clothing and Textile Union, was marching because "our workers get sick and we don't know where to tell them to get treatment." She added, "Just this morning one of my workers passed away." The woman who died was only 23 years old.


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