Health should be a right, not a commodity, and medicine must be removed from the World Trade Organisation, argues key speaker

Graham McKerrow, HIV i-Base

Health should be regarded as a right not a commodity to be traded in the markets, delegates attending the conference’s first plenary session were told by Dr Irene Fernandez, director of the Malaysian AIDS organisation Tenaganita and Chair of the Asian NGO umbrella organisation CARAM-ASIA (Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility).

She said the world was seeing a new paradigm in access to care with long-standing global iniquities being challenged.

“From disputes with the World Trade Organisation to court cases in South Africa, debate in relation to essential medicines has been resolved in favour of lower trade barriers to access.

“The principle of preferential pricing for HIV drugs for low- and middle-income countries has been largely accepted in the pharmaceutical industry. Prices have begun to drop and countries’ rights to invoke compulsory or voluntary licensing arrangements on patented drugs and on medications were affirmed clearly at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Dohar, Qatar, in late 2001,” said Dr Fernandez.

“But this is not enough. We need to go further and attack the root causes of the denial of treatment. Unless and until health is recognised as a fundamental right, any other interventions, like using funds from the Global Fund for drugs, becomes a dole out.

“In this context what we need to struggle for is to take health out of the World Trade Organisation. Health cannot be seen as a commodity any more. Health care must be available to all people, especially the poor.”

Dr Fernandez said responsibility and accountability for effective health care and access to treatment should be in the hands of governments and “not surrendered to transnational drug corporations”. Only if this happened, she argued, could national health policies evolve from the needs of the people, rather than as the consequence of market forces.

Dr Fernandez blamed the IMF and World Bank for pushing countries to privatise their health care services under structural adjustment programmes. “Consequently health care has been converted into a lucrative trade in people’s health. This system allows the health care industry to own and market the commodity.”

People who required health services had to purchase them through health insurance, said Dr Fernandez, but insurance was denied to HIV positive people. “It therefore not only marginalises people with AIDS, but denies them their right to treatment. Medicine, then, in the market place serves the demands of a few and follows its own commercial interests for pure profit.”

Drug patenting and profits kept prices high, she argued, which in turn prevented millions of people in the south from having access to drugs.

Dr Fernandez also criticised international trade and development policies that kept countries poor. She blamed the rich nations for insisting on free trade for developing countries while, for example, the United States gave its farmers subsidies worth $190 billion and Europe protected its farmers with $160 billion of subsidies.

In 1970, said Dr Fernandez, the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development agreed that 0.7% of their gross domestic products would be given in foreign aid, but the current official development assistance is only 0.22%. Dr Fernandez said this aid amounted to $53 billion today, when it should be $175 billion. “The G8 countries are continuously in default,” she concluded.

Dr Fernandez was giving the second Jonathan Mann Memorial lecture in memory of the first director of the Global programme on AIDS.

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