My Newsradio Scripts

These are my old radio news scripts on Singapore's current affairs when I worked as a broadcast journalist.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

OTGV #56 - WHO AIDS Fight

Broadcast Date : 10/05/04

HIV/AIDS is an infectious disease that has plagued the human society for more than two decades.

The World Health Organisation or W-H-O has been leading the fight since the beginning, but the UN agency is better known for its role in fighting SARS.

This is an indication of the taboo associated with the illness and the low priority the world gives to HIV/AIDs as a public health threat.

Hi, Welcome to On the Grapevine with me, Chong Ching Liang.

Some 8,000 people or 30 jumbo jets worth of passengers are dying from HIV/AIDS everyday

It is no wonder that W-H-O Director General, Lee Jong Wook, was in town recently, focused on this issue for his public lecture here

"Right now 40 million people around the world are infected with HIV-AIDS and 6 million people need the medicine today but only about 50 thousand people have access in the developing world. In India, officially there are 5 million people; In China, last year for the first time, said there are at least 850 thousand living with the virus; Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia these are countries struggling with the virus and Singapore is right in the middle. Clearly, this is knocking at the gate."

The current W-H-O HIV/AIDS initiative is snazzily known as the 3-by-5 campaign

It aims to supply medication to three million HIV-AIDS sufferers by 2005.

Most HIV-AIDS campaigns have been restricted to public education and prevention, but Dr Lee says this has to change.

"This is the world's worst public health threat that the world had faced. I believe Black Death in the 15th, 16th century in Europe was probably less significant problem than HIV-AIDS today. We believe, in WHO, that we have to focus very strongly on prevention to deal with this problem. But now we have to also introduce treatment. 'Without health, there is no development'. "

HIV is a virus that mutates very quickly to defend against any medication, so effective medications are almost always new and experimental.

This creates the single largest obstacle to treating HIV/AIDS in the public health sector -- the problem of expensive drugs.

Here's a Newsradio 938 listener's contribution to the station's World Aids Day radio forum last year.

"Dennis Yim [DY]: Let's take a caller right now. Victor good morning to you. Victor: Er Morning. DY: Yes what would you like to tell us? Victor: Those who catch AIDS is in a terrible state. The cocktail is very expensive you see. If they can't afford it don't know how they continue their treatment."

So how achievable is the W-H-O's 3-By-5 campaign, given the sheer costs of treatment?

Dr Lee says there's been outside help for public health planners.

"Today it will be about ten thousand dollars to treat one person per year because R&D costs are in the price. Many activist groups fought for many years to lower this drug price. Now after 20 years, generic drugs are offering the same combination of drugs at 300 dollars per year."

Generic or cheaper versions of HIV/AIDS medications are governed by strict intellectual property agreement endorsed by the World Trade Organization.

However, Dr Lee says there are abuses to this system.

"The TRIPPS agreement at the DOHA declaration there was some intellectual property exemptions for those drugs used for public health purpose. This will only work if rules are observed by everybody. Some European countries provided drugs to certain countries in Africa and in no time these drugs re-cycled back to their own market in Netherlands. And if this happen, it will be a great dis-incentive for anybody to provide drugs at reduced price."

But there is a reason why such black markets exist.

The lower-income HIV/AIDS sufferers in the developed countries can't afford the 10,000-US-dollar-medicine bill.

Vice-President for Singapore's HIV/AIDS activist group, Action for AIDS Brenton Wong, highlights the plight of sufferers in Singapore.

"More than half our patients cannot afford the triple drug therapy in Singapore. That is why many are going to Thailand for treatment. The 3-in-1 drug costs about 60 to 70 a month and in Singapore pay almost 900 to a thousand dollars for that."

The poor and the rich in Thailand gets help because they have access to generic drugs.

Singapore is a different case, as Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan explained at a Newsradio's radio forum last year.

"We have strict patent laws and as a result only patented medicine is sold. And the costs of patented medicine is determined by the company that makes the medication. Generic drugs available in Thailand are very cheap and Singaporeans do go to Thailand to buy generic drugs as a result. But that's not because there's a big subsidy but because of patent laws."

Dr Lee agrees that the discrepancies in the pricing of HIV/AIDS medications are hard to fathom.

"Drug prices are a big mystery. The more you know, the more you don't know. One example, the price of polio vaccine which is manufactured in France and purchased by UNICEF and used for us in the field, is 11 US cents. The same vaccine, you have to pay maybe twenty or thirty dollars in a more advanced market. Exactly the same vaccine!"

But if you don't give the giant pharmaceutical companies their profits, they won't do the research.

On the other hand, when these companies recover their research costs through the retail price of their products, you deny the latest drugs to a sizable group of patients in developed economies.

How's that for a Catch-22 situation?

This is Chong Ching Liang for Newsradio 938.


Related Links:

Newsradio 938 (now 938Live) Image hosted by

UNAIDS Image hosted by

Ministry of Health Image hosted by

Action for AIDS Image hosted by


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