Since December 1 was set aside as World AIDS Day, almost all the themes commemorating the day have been eluded by one fact- that poverty fuels the spread of the pandemic. This year’s theme, ?Protecting Women and Girls From the Spread of HIV/AIDS? is particularly poignant, but yet another case of a shot far too misfired.
The Director-General of the Ghana AIDS Commission is reported to have implored everyone, ?particularly men, to recognise their responsibility to protect women and girls from infection.?
True, some experts say that women are three times more likely to contract the virus than men and so the caution may not be misplaced. However, protection against the deadly virus has socio-economic dimensions than mere sensual appeal.
Africa notoriously accounts for more than half of the global number of persons infected with HIV/AIDS with some 60 million persons directly and indirectly affected. Access to antiretrovirals (ARVs) poses the greatest challenge to patients in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is on the one hand the emotive argument about patents, and the inability of patients to afford subsidized ARVs on the other.
Out of an estimated 40 million infected in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 30,000 are reported to have access to ARVs. In Ghana only 1600 out of a reported figure of 72,000 patients have access to ARVs, which cost US$ 600 per patient per month. The Ghana Aids Commission supports all these with a massive subsidy so that patients now pay US$ 5.5 per month, often very difficult to afford. Assuming Ghana?s allocation of the Global Aids Funds increased, doubtless a maximum of 2000 patients could be catered for yearly, given the 3.6 % annual rate of infection. But this will be losing the battle against the disease, as ARVs administration is not a one-off event.
The head of Ghana?s Aids Commission realizes the enormity of the task and yet his solution is not commendable. His outfit plans ?to explore the possibility of the government supplying the drugs for free to patients?.
This is oblivious of the fact that governments really have no free money except first through taxes exacted form all of us and perhaps donor funding. This suggestion gives governments the excuse to set up all manner of funds to as it were promote the general welfare.
The best way to protect girls and women is not only to call on the men folk to live responsible lives but also to attempt to insulate them from the pressures that drive them into irresponsible sexual lifestyles. Rather than add up to the fiscal burden of ordinary Ghanaians by way of taxation-for-subsidy, the government should be urged to broaden access to economic opportunities through institutional reforms.
An important first step would be decentralizing ownership of resources and other assets. A second step would be an effective, transparent and accountable legal framework that combines effectively with respect for private property and the rule of law. The total effect is that these reforms encourage entrepreneurship and innovation and empower people with information to make life-saving choices, purchase insurance against deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, afford better technologies, clean water and superior energy sources.
The government should also step up its negotiating efforts to get patent rights to produce generics at cheaper rates, improve upon the health infrastructure to ensure efficient and transparent delivery of ARVs to as many patients. Nonetheless, the economic well being of Ghanaians remains the bulwark against the spread of HIV/AIDS. That means ?fighting poverty to fight Aids?. This might be considered the theme for next year?s World Aids Day.
Franklin Cudjoe is founder of Imani: The Centre for Humane Education