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REPORTING ON THE FIGHT AGAINST AIDS IN POOR NATIONS


Norman Solomon

In

Africa, 17 million people have already died of AIDS. In  developing

countries around the world, twice that many are now HIV  positive. Such

statistics are largely unfathomable. And news accounts  rarely explore

basic options for halting the deadly momentum.

But

during the past several weeks, some major U.S. media outlets  have taken

bold and valuable steps in coverage of the global fight against  AIDS.

Mainstream journalists are making headway in reporting on a crucial  issue:

How can life-saving drugs get to poor people who need them?

This

week, Time magazine features a 20-page cover story that  combines starkly

moving photos with text about AIDS and its victims in  Africa. "We

have no medicines for AIDS," says a South African doctor. "So  many

hospitals tell them, ‘You’ve got AIDS. We can’t help you. Go home and  die.’"

While

it’s an important breakthrough for American journalism, the  Time spread

has left ample room for improvement in follow-up efforts. The  critical

acuity is sharpest — and harshest — when focusing on cultural  and

political shortcomings that have contributed to the AIDS disaster in  Africa.

But the Manhattan-based magazine is not as tough or explicit when  it

assesses culpability closer to home in a one-page closing piece —  "Paying

for AIDS Cocktails: Who should pick up the tab for the Third World?"

Noting

that "wealthy countries use multidrug-cocktail therapies  that

transform AIDS from certain killer to chronic illness," the article  reported:

"Despite years of evidence of AIDS’ genocidal toll on poor  countries,

no one has brought these drugs within reach of ordinary  Africans. In fact,

the people who make the drugs — American- and  European-owned

multinational pharmaceutical corporations — and their home  governments,

notably Washington, have worked hard to keep prices up by  limiting exports

to the Third World and vigorously enforcing patent rights."

Interestingly,

Time failed to name any of those drug companies.  But reporter Johanna

McGeary and the magazine deserve credit for raising  pivotal concerns in a

high-profile way. "During the tug of war so far," she  explained,

"the pharmaceuticals and Western governments have prevailed. But  increasingly,

poor countries and AIDS advocates are finding ways to shift  the

balance." India and Brazil have manufactured generic copies of AIDS  drugs,

"selling them at deeply discounted prices."

Time’s

reportage comes on the heels of an extensive path-breaking  article in the

Sunday magazine of the New York Times, on Jan. 28, by Tina  Rosenberg.

"Countries that have tried to manufacture generic medicine have  fallen

under debilitating pressure from pharmaceutical companies and from  Washington,"

she wrote. Among the firms cited in the lengthy article were  Glaxo

Wellcome, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck and Pfizer.

Rosenberg

took an in-depth look at Brazil’s successful  innovations. "Since

1997," she reported, "virtually every AIDS patient in  Brazil for

whom it is medically indicated gets, free, the same triple  cocktails that

keep rich Americans healthy. (In Western Europe, no one who  needs AIDS

treatment is denied it because of cost. This is true in some  American

states, but not all.) Brazil has shredded all the excuses about  why poor

countries cannot treat AIDS."

The

Times article pointed out: "On the shaky foundation of its  public

health service, Brazil built a well-run network of AIDS clinics….  Brazilian

AIDS patients have proved just as able to take their medicine on  time as

patients in the United States." And Brazil’s program "has halved

 the death rate from AIDS, prevented hundreds of thousands of new  hospitalizations,

cut the transmission rate, helped to stabilize the  epidemic and improved

the overall state of public health in Brazil."

Hopefully,

we’ll see a continuation of the current trend toward  clear-eyed

investigative reporting about the global reach of the immensely  profitable

drug industry. Each prominent example of such journalism helps  to lay the

groundwork for others. In late December, the front page of the  Washington

Post showcased a series of fine articles, "Death Watch: AIDS,  Drugs

and Africa," which included close scrutiny of how drug companies have

 raked in huge profits while blocking attempts to provide desperately

needed  medication to AIDS sufferers.

A

parallel challenge for journalists is to present broader  contexts. For

instance: When Time’s cover story mentioned, as a significant  cause of

prostitution, that "plenty of women in bush villages need extra  cash,

often to pay school fees," the magazine did not explain why millions  of

African people have been required to pay tuition for education. A key  fact

is that for many years, beginning in the late 1980s, powerful lending  institutions

like the World Bank insisted that African countries require  user fees for

schools and health clinics — all part of the push to impose  a "free

market" for the benefit of Western lenders and investors.

If

a new era of reporting on the global AIDS crisis is here,  journalists will

be probing for deeper questions and answers.

__________

Norman

Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of

 Highly Deceptive Media."

 

 

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