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WHO expands AIDS drug program

/ Source: The Associated Press

Promising cheaper drugs, simpler regimens and more money, two U.N. agencies launched a campaign Monday to provide 3 million HIV-infected people with the latest drugs available by the end of 2005, potentially revolutionizing treatment of the disease.

In marking World AIDS Day, the World Health Organization also certified a new, innovative generic drug for use in treating HIV. The tablet combines three essential anti-retroviral drugs into one pill that is taken twice a day.

The pills are manufactured by two India-based generic drug makers and cost patients only $270 a year, but violates patents held by two major drug manufacturers. In order to legally import the drugs, countries must suspend the rights of the patent holder.

The WHO’s approval of simplified treatment regimens and generic anti-retroviral drugs is only one part of the agency’s strategy, dubbed 3x5. WHO also joined UNAIDS in encouraging greater financial aid to poor countries.

“In two short decades, HIV/AIDS has become the premiere disease of mass destruction,” Dr. Jack Chow, the assistant director-general of WHO, said. The death odometer is spinning at 8,000 lives a day and accelerating.”

Treating 3 million patients with anti-retroviral drugs by 2005 will cost about $5.5 billion over the next two years, Chow said.

More than 40 million people are infected with HIV and more than 3 million have died in 2003, UNAIDS reported last week. WHO estimates more than 5 million HIV patients need anti-retroviral drugs, but fewer than 400,000 currently have access to them.

Anti-retroviral drug combinations, often called triple-therapy cocktails, allow HIV patients to live a relatively normal life by preventing them from developing full-blown AIDS. While the drugs improve the health of patients, they remain infected with the virus and can transmit the disease.

High prices have kept the drugs out of reach of most patients, but recent initiatives have made the drugs more affordable. The WHO and UNAIDS initiative will improve drug distribution channels and train health professionals in poor countries.

Noticeably absent from the program’s launch in Nairobi were representatives from the world’s drug manufacturers. Pharmaceutical companies holding patents for AIDS drugs have fiercely fought to block generic manufacturers from impinging on their patent rights, often lobbying governments to reject the vastly cheaper alternatives in return for discounted prices.

Chow said they have held meetings with patent holders and generic companies but said no major agreements have been reached. Expanding production of the drugs will be critical to meeting the 3x5 goals, he said.