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Editorials and Commentary
U.S. Senator Helms as an AIDS Savior

March 26, 2002

"...Writing in Sunday's Washington Post, Senator Jesse Helms, long deemed public enemy No. 1 by AIDS advocates, said that he would ask for an extra $500 million to prevent mother-to-child transmission of AIDS overseas, contingent on matching funds from the private sector.

"'Some may say that this initiative is not consistent with some of my earlier positions,' wrote Mr. Helms. But he continued, 'in the end our conscience is answerable to God. Perhaps, in my 81st year, I am too mindful of soon meeting Him, but I know that, like the Samaritan traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we cannot turn away when we see our fellow man in need.' There are many in Congress who have talked about adding money to President Bush's shamefully tight-fisted budget for combating AIDS overseas, but nothing can match the impact of these words from Senator Helms. The medication required to halt mother-to-child transmission is inexpensive. Boehringer-Ingelheim, which makes nevirapine, the cheaper and easier to use of the two effective drugs, gives it away in many poor countries. Even where nations must pay the cost of one oral dose for the mother and one for the newborn, nevirapine costs only $4 at Western list prices, and can be administered by unskilled health workers. The real expense is providing women AIDS testing, counseling and baby formula. All these services, however, are cheaper than hospitalizing dying children.

"A second barrier is a lingering and misguided skepticism about the safety of nevirapine, especially in the South African government. On Friday, Boehringer-Ingelheim announced it was withdrawing its application to use nevirapine in America to prevent mother-to-child transmission, after the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases questioned a study of nevirapine carried out in Uganda. But a spokesman for the institute says the flaw in the Uganda study is purely one of bookkeeping. NIAID, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS and the [CDC] have all since reaffirmed nevirapine's safety and effectiveness. It would be a tragedy if a paperwork problem discouraged use of a simple and cheap treatment that can save hundreds of thousands of children each year."

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Excerpted from:
New York Times

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