This is why we treat HIV.

According to this report from Reuters, “Greater access to free medicine has helped slash AIDS-related deaths in Malawi by 75 percent in the last four years, a senior government official said on Monday.”

Malawi, which currently has a population of about 13 million, has seen about 800,000 AIDS-related deaths in the last 23 years, and “HIV/AIDS has been blamed for 59 percent of deaths among those aged between 15 to 59 years.”

Since Malawi “started to offer free antiretroviral therapy — drugs that help treat immunodeficiency virus — to thousands of patients” in 2004, thousands of lives have been saved.  As of March 2008, over 159,000 people have received free antiretroviral therapy from Malawi’s government.  Two-thirds of those individuals are still alive.  Malawi’s principle secretary for HIV/AIDS Mary Shawa pointed out that “those who did not make it may have died because they started the treatment late or did not have access to proper nutrition.”  While much remains to be done, however, Malawi has clearly made very impressive progress in reducing the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on its people.

I wanted to highlight this story because it demonstrates the power, not only of antiretroviral therapy itself, but also of low-cost drug access.  These many lives were saved because the people were able to get the medicine they needed.  That meant it had to be free.  This is why things like drug prices and patents (which often drive prices up) matter.  It’s why treatment funding matters.

Speaking of which . . . the Aug. 17 editorial in the Washington Post praised the “profound impact” of PEPFAR in helping to fund a massive increase in the number of people in the developing world who are able to receive HIV treatment.  Addressing calls to shift funding from foreign to domestic (American) HIV/AIDS efforts, the article advocates a both/and strategy (i.e. while more needs to be done for AIDS domestically, it should should occur in addition to, not instead of, foreign HIV/AIDS work).

The article also warns that although PEPFAR was signed into law over the summer, no one should stop pressing the issue yet:

Unfortunately, key congressional subcommittees have approved funding at levels below those set in the bill. The budget for foreign aid is insufficient, and there are many worthy programs. Still, full funding should be a priority in future years. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has pledged to fully fund the legislation. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, co-sponsored the bill but has been less vocal about his support.

These are heavy and important issues.  But for now, let’s celebrate this impressive progress in the lives and health of the people of Malawi.

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~ by h.e.g. on August 30, 2008.

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