OP-ED: Pharmas must rise to global PR challenge AIDS poses

Late last year, Foreign Affairs magazine published a thoughtful article on "The Future of AIDS." It was an early warning cry that PR practitioners working with the pharmaceutical industry cannot ignore.

Late last year, Foreign Affairs magazine published a thoughtful article on "The Future of AIDS." It was an early warning cry that PR practitioners working with the pharmaceutical industry cannot ignore.

Nicholas Eberstadt, the article's author and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that while our attention is currently focused on the HIV disaster in Africa, the disease's impact over the next two decades may be equally grim in India, China, and particularly Russia - all countries struggling to emerge from an economic ice age and looking to develop democratic institutions. "The absolute magnitude of the Eurasian HIV/AIDS epidemic over the next quarter century will match or exceed that of the entire worldwide HIV crisis up to now," wrote Eberstadt. The consequences to these nations - and the West - are profound and troubling. We are all aware of the destruction caused by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the world's 40 million people infected with HIV, 28 million live south of the Sahara. Among those in their most productive years, ages 19-49, at least 9% are infected. In South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland, the rates of infection among adults exceed 20%. While companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche have made enormous contributions both in products and research to stem the African pandemic, the long-term prognosis there is desperate. Short of a cure, literally entire generations of Africans are doomed. Desperate as the situation is there, a gathering storm in Eurasia may have an equally profound impact, and, politically speaking, even more serious consequences. Eberstadt says that while data is hard to confirm, best estimates are that HIV may currently infect some 7 million individuals in India, China, and Russia. That number could ratchet upward over the next two decades in horrifying proportions. By 2025, with a "mild" epidemic, some 66 million people in those countries could become infected - more than the total number of people infected with the virus to date globally. And under a worst-case scenario, nearly 260 million individuals there could be carrying HIV. None of these nations seem prepared for the coming hurricane. China appears to be in denial. Russia, gasping for money to run its government, has earmarked a miserly $6 million of its own funds toward AIDS programs. By contrast, President Bush has pledged $15 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS around the world. Looking ahead, the consequences for the West are serious. Apart from the human tragedy, stability in these critical nations will be problematic, and economic growth will be impossible. George Tenet, director of the CIA, recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee: "The national-security dimensions of the virus are plain: It can undermine economic growth, exacerbate social tensions, diminish military preparedness, create huge social welfare costs, and further weaken already beleaguered states...and the virus respects no border." The Western pharmaceutical industry, already besieged by demands from African and South American nations for low-cost medications, will be under renewed assault, this time by nations with political, if not economic clout. Faced with this scenario, are the global pharmaceutical companies developing strategies for coping with an expanded AIDS disaster? If they are wise, they will plan now to address the drug-access issue in China, India, and Russia. Despite their contribution, world consensus is that they have come up short in addressing the epidemic in Africa. Unfortunately, they now will have another opportunity to demonstrate that they can develop creative, realistic plans to provide drugs to people in need. The industry should also underscore its commitment to eliminating AIDS by underwriting public education programs - perhaps sponsoring a "Health Corps," akin to the US Peace Corps - to help develop prevention programs abroad. This would represent a new strategy for the pharmaceutical industry, but from an image-enhancement perspective, it's an important one. PR will play a critical role in this fight, as we will need to help reshape and communicate the industry's response to this crisis. Rather than looking tactically at communications programs, PR consultants should help communicate the industry's commitment on the governmental level, and to the many peoples of these countries. That's a huge responsibility, but one we cannot afford to dodge.
  • Michael Durand is the global healthcare practice director at Porter Novelli.

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