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HEALTH/DEVELOPMENT: EU-ACP Parliamentarians Focus on Fight Against AIDS

Brian Kenety

BRUSSELS, Oct 12 2000 (IPS) - Parliamentarians from the European Union (EU) and the 77 states of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group held a public hearing here Thursday to examine the effectiveness of their combined efforts to deal with the AIDS epidemic.

The hearing came on the final day of the first ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, which convened from Oct. 9-12, and addressed a host of issues, from war in the Great Lakes region of Africa and land reform in Zimbabwe, to the political situation in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, to challenges of development and globalisation shared by all.

But it was the issue of AIDS in particular – and infectious “killer diseases” (tuberculosis, malaria) in general – that was afforded the largest single bloc of time for presentations and comment in the chambers of the European Parliament, which hosted the joint assembly.

“There is a lack of a systemic vision that will govern the whole of the fight against AIDS,” Dr Louise Fatim of Africa Consult International (Senegal) told the joint assembly.

“And here I am going to ask the question again: Is there real co- operation between members of civil society, development partners and governments?” she said.

It was a question that would be posed numerous times during the hearing, as parliamentarians and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took the floor to give examples of programmes that worked in their home countries and the problems they face in slowing the spread of the disease.

“If we consider the high stakes of the fight against AIDS … We talk about improved access to care, improved access to treatment for people living with AIDS in developing countries. We talk more and more about making available condoms, about preventing transmission from mother to child. We talk about vaccines, we talk a lot about the need to increase resources to fight against the disease,” said Fatim.

“In light of all of that, I think we must realise that there is a need for co-operation between all of the various actors at the various levels – between civil society, between bilateral and multilateral organisations and governments,” she said.

“It can never be overstated that process of bringing about behavioural change is extraordinarily complex and is also long-term and requires measures to be taken at the political level, legislative level and also at the infrastructural level,” she told the assembly, in stressing the need for parliamentarians to take personal responsibility.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, convened a high- level international round table discussion in Brussels last week towards an “accelerated action targeted at major communicable diseases (HIV-AIDS-Malaria-Tuberculosis) within the context of poverty reduction”.

These killer diseases account for 60 percent of the total disease burden in developing countries and claim the lives of 5 million people each year. Some 34 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, whilst one person dies every 30 seconds from malaria and nearly 1 billion people will be newly infected with Tuberculosis (TB) over the next 20 years.

The round table was co-sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV-AIDS (UNAIDS), some 130 people were present, including representatives of developing country governments, the World Trade Organisation, civil society organisations, research agencies, and the private sector.

Poul Nielson, EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, told the assembly earlier in the week that the round table demonstrated “there is clearly a greater international awareness and unprecedented support for an increased effort in the fight against communicable diseases”.

He said he was personally committed to using all of the EU’s “instruments, including development, trade and research, and to building new partnerships to participate actively in this effort”.

For Nielson, better prevention should be at the forefront, including access to information, condoms and drugs to prevent HIV positive women passing on the virus to their unborn offspring.

“We are funding both targeted actions and wider health systems development,” he said Thursday, noting that health has risen from one percent to eight percent of total EU assistance over the past decade.

“We recognise that the threat to global development caused by HIV-AIDS and the other major communicable diseases … urgently demands a global response on a greater scale. These (killer diseases) are triggered disproportionately and we need to address them within a context of poverty reduction,” he said.

“Prevention is most important. Honest information is the key to success. I see a risk of the attention being diverted by focusing more on (the cure) than on prevention,” said Nielson.

He noted that the limited resources for health are the key constraint – the health care budget in most sub-Saharan African countries is four to six US dollars per capita per year.

“The reality of poverty as the background for all of this should be kept in mind,” said the former Danish development minister. “The reality here tells us that regardless of the good attempts to reduce the cost of drugs and the whole curative side” it will not be enough, he said, but the EU would offer technical assistance as regards customs and related intellectual property issues before the WTO.

Brian Anger, Director General of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) said the industry was deeply concerned by the fact that about one-third of the world’s population lack access to adequate health care. However, he said, patients in developing countries would not see an improvement in access to medicines without a suitable public healthcare infrastructure, sufficient financing of healthcare needs and a strong political will by national governments to provide treatment.

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