HIV/AIDS in Africa - Battling the Barriers to Treatment

By Brad Faught

Over the last ten years no health issue has had a bigger impact worldwide than HIV/AIDS. Recently, some former and current law students have taken an active role in the fight against this relentless epidemic in Africa, the hardest hit region in the world. The latest statistics show that of the 42 million people around the world who are HIV positive, 29 million of them live in Africa. In 2001, the latest year for which full statistics are available, 2.2 million African men, women and children died from AIDS. In January, and responding to considerable international pressure to make a dramatic and far-reaching move against HIV/AIDS, U.S. President George W. Bush, in the State of the Union Address, pledged $15-billion (U.S.) to fight the epidemic over the next five years. Bush's substantial pledge is a welcome infusion of cash to many, including Stephen Lewis, the Canadian U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Meanwhile, however, the deaths continue, as do the many hardships associated with living with AIDS, which have both a personal and a social impact.

Africa is a long way from Canada, but that distance has been shrunk during the last year by a couple of initiatives sponsored by two law school alumni and a current student. Jonathan Berger completed an LL.M. in 2001 on the impact of international trade law on access to treatment for HIV/AIDS. His thesis looked at the relationship between the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and South Africa's Constitution, focusing on the manner in and the extent to which TRIPS permits a country like South Africa to take steps towards safeguarding the health of its people.

Afterwards, Berger interned in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with Gruppo Pela Vidda, an AIDS-service and advocacy group before returning to South Africa to take up a position with the AIDS Law Project (ALP), which is based at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. South Africa, like many countries in Africa, daily faces an AIDS crisis. Almost five million - or one-in-nine - people in South Africa are living with HIV/AIDS. In 2001, over 200,000 South Africans died of AIDS, and all the signs point to a steady increase in these grim numbers.

But a strong belief that the epidemic can be turned around motivates Berger in his work, which consists mainly of trying to achieve better and broader access to HIV/AIDS medicines for those needing treatment. The ALP, through its Law & Treatment Access Unit (LTAU), seeks to use the law as a tool in attempting to remove barriers to treatment access. The cost of antiretroviral medicines (used to treat HIV-infection and thereby prevent the onset of opportunistic infections associated with HIV/AIDS) is extremely high. For many Africans, whose income is meagre by western standards, the cost of seeking proper treatment is prohibitive. To that end, LTAU advocates for a  fairer price regime and has launched a lawsuit against the pricing practices of GlaxoSmithKline and Boehringer Ingelheim, two major multinational drug firms operating in South Africa. In addition, the LTAU is advocating for a review of the Patents Act insofar as essential medicines are concerned, calling for the South African government to pass amendments that would take full advantage of recent international trade law developments that have the potential to increase access to medicines.

Closer to home, J.D. student Max Morgan, and former LL.M. student, Kibrom Isaac Teklehaimanot, coordinated a group of students in March of this year to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. The main goal of the new working group, says Morgan, is "to amend the Canada Patent Act to allow for the production and export of generic pharmaceuticals to developing countries." As well, the group - which is part of the law school's International Human Rights Program - is assisting the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in producing a resource guide for development officers, which will emphasize a rightsbased approach to fighting HIV/AIDS. This approach is important to both Morgan and Teklehaimanot, both because of their own research interests and because of the way in which their legal studies can be made directly applicable to an extremely serious international issue. This latter fact was highlighted through the working group's screening at their inaugural meeting in March of "Race Against Time," an award-winning documentary on AIDS in Africa attended by both the filmmaker, Judy Jackson, and Anne Bains, special assistant to Stephen Lewis.

Morgan's interest in HIV/AIDS advocacy came in part from working for an AIDS research organization in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002. And this summer, he will gain even more experience by taking up an internship with the International Council of Service Organizations, an internship facilitated by the International Human Rights Program. Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean, completed his LL.M. in Human Rights and Reproductive Health law in 2001. His aspirations include continuing to use his education and experience to help the working group fight AIDS in Africa through the vehicle of human rights advocacy.

This article first appeared in Nexus in Spring 2003