Life-saving drugs under threat in Thailand

Thailand's national HIV and AIDS treatment program has succeeded in providing cheap drugs to 90 per cent of the people who need them.

However, the US push for a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand threatens the future of the treatment program by enforcing stricter patent rules. This could increase the price of new and improved AIDS drugs by as much as 90 per cent, costing the Thai government up to $ 3.2 billion and putting thousands of lives at risk.

For Solada (not her real name), the availability of affordable medicines is a matter of life or death. She is 43-years-old and HIV-positive. She is currently receiving medicine through the government treatment programme. She lives with her husband, Utai, who is a casual laborer, and her 16-year-old son, Putipong. Sewing bags for a living, she is the family's main breadwinner. "When I first learned I was HIV-positive I couldn't accept it,” she says. “But now, because of the treatment I receive, I feel alive. I'm born again."

Experts say that about five per cent of drug recipients each year develop resistance, as the HIV virus mutates. When this happens, new and improved drugs are required. These medicines are expensive as they are patented by international drug companies. The current prices charged by companies for these drugs ($6,782) are more than ten times the cost of cheaper copies currently provided by the government ($482). If the US and pharmaceutical companies get their way, life-saving drugs will be priced out of the reach of Thailand's poor people.

Isra (not his real name) is a 34-year-old dried seafood retailer living with HIV. Without support from Oxfam, he would be unable to pay for his HIV treatment, which costs twice what he earns per month. “I want drug companies to make drugs affordable,” he says. “The new drugs are expensive. I think they should also be part of the government programme, as people on my income can't afford to buy them. I get depressed and stressed when I think of it. I have no choice, I want to survive. I need these drugs."


The economics of effective AIDS treatment: evaluating policy options for Thailand (World Bank; 2006), by Ana Revenga, Mead Over, Wiwat Peerapatanapokin, Sombat Thanprasertsuk, Emiko Masaki, Viroj Tangcharoensathien, Julian Gold.