AIDS Drugs Not Effective in China

By Shi Shan, Radio Free Asia
November 30, 2007 12:00 am Last Updated: November 30, 2007 12:00 am

According to an AIDS expert, many Chinese HIV infected patients have developed a resistance to the early treatment drugs which are provided free by the government. Unfortunately, because these patients cannot afford advanced treatment, their health continues to deteriorate.

Dr. Chan Chi-Wai, Director of the Hong Kong University AIDS Research Center, said that HIV infected patients in a central-Chinese province have developed a strong resistance to the drugs provided. Many of the patients have entered the last stage of HIV-AIDS. The doctor would not release information on the province, but said in the past four years, the Center has been following the situation.

Patients Develop Resistance to AIDS Drugs

The Shangqiu Mutual Aid Group is based in Shangqiu City, Henan Province. It is a private organization that is concerned about AIDS. Rong Junkui, in charge of the Aid Group, said it's common to develop resistance to AIDS drugs, the main reason being that patients infected with HIV do not continue to take the drug on a regular basis.

“Some people develop drug resistance because they do not follow the instructions as to prescribed doses and frequency. This is a common occurrence because we mostly use inexpensive drugs that are obsolete or no longer used in other countries. These drugs also have stronger side effects.”

Some Thought They Were Being Poisoned

According to Hu Jia, a human rights activist in Beijing, the reasons why patients refuse to take drugs according to directions is because: “Beijing chooses to use the prescriptions that are cheaper and banned by the WHO. Ingredients in the prescriptions have stronger side effects and cause great pain to the patients.”

“Some patients with diseased livers or kidneys can die faster after taking the prescription drugs. Some even thought the government was trying to poison them, so they refused to take the right amount at the right time. This has caused the early development of strong drug resistance,” said Hu, “But patients who take the drugs according to instructions can still develop resistance after several years, that is also quite normal.”

Once HIV patients develop a resistance to the first-generation drug, they must take second-generation drugs. However, China doesn't produce inexpensive second-generation and third-generation AIDS drugs and very few patients can afford imported drugs. The imported second-generation drugs are especially expensive and cost about US$1,300 a month. “The government has noticed the cost and since 2005 is educating the patients, to push the idea of the free drug. The goal of our Aid Group is therapy education,” said Rong.

Dr. Chan stressed that international pharmaceutical companies have strict rules on knowledge-based patents and it takes a lot of investment to produce AIDS drugs. This is a big problem in China, but Hu thinks the country should apply WHO's Doha Agreement. 1

“Being such a large market, Beijing has the bargaining power to ask international pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of their drugs. More importantly, China is a developing country and is entitled to initiate WHO's Doha Agreement. When public health issues threaten a country's stability and security, the country is allowed to copycat AIDS drugs.” said Hu.

Saving Face

Unfortunately the Chinese government seems to prefer a good image and continued working relationship with international business groups over more effective AIDS drugs. Hu comments, “I feel the Indian and Thai governments do better than Beijing on such issues. In the democratic countries, citizens' lives are more important than the government's image and reputation.”

(1) According to the U.N., “The fourth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial meeting (i.e., meeting of trade ministers) was held in Doha, Qatar in November 2001. A resulting Declaration stressed that it is important to implement and interpret the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement in a way that supports public health, by promoting both access to existing medicines and the creation of new medicines. The failure to reach agreement on implementation of the Doha Declaration has led to widespread concern, particularly among developing countries.”