MEDIA: Media Watch - AIDS conference served as platform to lay blame

While the 13th International AIDS Conference was taking place this July in Durban, South Africa, much of the buzz surrounded allegations that many Western pharmaceutical companies are overcharging for AIDS treatments.

While the 13th International AIDS Conference was taking place this July in Durban, South Africa, much of the buzz surrounded allegations that many Western pharmaceutical companies are overcharging for AIDS treatments.

While the 13th International AIDS Conference was taking place this

July in Durban, South Africa, much of the buzz surrounded allegations

that many Western pharmaceutical companies are overcharging for AIDS

treatments.



While some US media criticized pharmaceutical companies for doing too

little, too late, company spokespeople took advantage of the visibility

on the conference by promoting the industry’s generosity.



According to research by CARMA International, the majority of reports

appeared to focus the blame on the cost of AIDS drugs. South African

High Court justice Edwin Cameron, who is HIV-positive, addressed the

conference: ’Amidst the poverty of Africa, I stand here before you

because I am able to purchase health. I am here because I can pay for

life itself’ (CNN, July 11). Conference organizer Dr. Hoosen Coorvadia

added, ’In the way we fought apartheid, we need now to tackle drug

prices’ (Newsday, July 11).



Spokespeople rallied to the support of their companies by promoting

efforts to donate drugs and money to help stem the crisis. Executives at

Merck discussed their work with the Gates Foundation to battle the

disease in Botswana. ’This is going to make a world of difference for

people living with HIV in Botswana,’ said Merck spokesman Jeffrey

Turchio (Los Angeles Times, July 11).



Most reports speculated that the donations were a result of public

pressure on the companies, not solely altruistic, and that the

conference itself was dramatically increasing that pressure. Abbott Labs

spokesman Rick Moser stressed that the important thing is that action is

taking place, and described the efforts as an industry initiative,

noting donations by Bristol-Myers Squibb from over a year ago: ’We are

responding to the calls for help and the public pressure, too. Yes, we

and others could have acted before, but clearly the time has come for us

to act. You really have to give the people at Bristol-Myers their due.

They opened the door, and we and others are now walking through it’ (The

Wall Street Journal, July 10).



Many journalists surmised that governmental inaction might be to blame

for the spread of AIDS, discussing South African president Mbeki’s

refusal to make AZT available to HIV-positive pregnant mothers.

Activists proclaimed that the main issue in Africa is lack of education

about the disease, not the cost of drugs. ’(Ugandan) President Museveni,

his attitude and action towards AIDS is one of the most important

factors that I think created the environment within my country in which

AIDS prevention activities took place,’ said Ugandan physician Dr. David

Sowata (National Public Radio, July 11).



While pharmaceutical companies were certainly criticized from many

angles in the media coverage surrounding the conference, the huge

breadth of issues covered at the conference shifted some of the focus

away from the drug companies. Also, company spokespeople were vocal in

their respective companies’ efforts to stop the spread of AIDS in

Africa, and were ready to respond to allegations that their charity was

misplaced. This appeared to help the industry as a whole maintain an

image of generosity at an event crowded with inaction and blame.



Evaluation and analysis by CARMA. Media Watch can be found at

www.carma.com.



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