HIV/AIDS is a serious problem in Thailand. It is estimated that approximately 1.3 million people – around 2% of the population – are infected with HIV.

Reducing HIV infection

Five years ago the Thai government began giving free treatment for pregnant women infected with HIV. The anti-retroviral drug, AZT (zidovudine) reduces the risk of pregnant women passing on the virus to their unborn babies. In Thailand AZT is given to mothers who test positive for HIV in the last weeks of pregnancy. This has reduced the rate of HIV infection in their babies by 50%. The drugs used in Thailand cost about $50 per mother. AZT is a powerful drug that can cause a number of side effects. However, the short-term course given to mothers seems to have no negative effects on them or their babies. Another less expensive drug is Nevaripine, which is almost as effective if used as part of a well-managed health education programme.

Though the procedure is expensive, the Thai government is setting an example and will bring the country considerable benefits by reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. If other governments followed this policy, hundreds of thousands of childhood HIV infections could be prevented around the world.

Siam-Care, a Tearfund partner in Thailand, works with pregnant women with HIV or AIDS who are rejected by their families. They provide support, encouragement and training to help them find practical ways of providing for their babies after birth. They also educate young people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. With the help of young people, they wrote a booklet based on Christian principles for teenagers and printed 5,000 to use in their training sessions. However, a government official saw a copy and circulated it within the Ministry of Public Health. Officials thought it so useful they requested permission to print 100,000 copies to give out to all secondary school students. Siam-Care is now finalising a booklet for primary school children called A Little Dragon Lives in Brenda’s Blood.

Counting the costs

The cost of anti-retroviral drugs is too expensive for the Thai government to treat other patients with HIV/AIDS – they must pay for their own treatment. These drugs are manufactured in Thailand and cost less than in other countries where they have to be imported. Anew mixture of three anti-retroviral drugs still costs just over 5,000 Baht ($115) each month – treatment only the very rich can afford. The cost of these drugs could be substantially reduced if the patent charge on the drug was removed. This would greatly extend their use among poor people. Though patents provide funding to allow companies to develop new drugs, many argue that they should not be charged for essential drugs. At the recent World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks, representatives from 50 poor countries (including Siam-Care) worked together to lobby the WTO to release poor countries from patent charges.

HIV/AIDS is causing a worldwide crisis. The WTO and major US pharmaceutical companies should release poor countries from the burden of patents on essential drugs to make anti-retrovirals widely available to the poor. The ‘accelerating access’ process to improve HIV care supported by the United Nations and five major drug companies is a positive step forward.

Siam-Care, PO Box 86, Sutthisan PO, Bangkok 10321, Thailand. E-mail: siamcare@samart.co.th Website: www.siamcare.org

Suggested action

Does your government provide anti-retroviral drugs at the end of pregnancy to prevent HIV infection in newborn babies? If not, work with other groups to request this life-saving treatment.

Imaginative education on HIV/AIDS is essential to protect young people. Could you learn from Siam-Care’s example?

Raise awareness with religious organisations and NGOs about the WTO’s present policy on patents for anti-retrovirals.