January 5, 2006
A recent $8.4 million grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria is intended to help provide HIV medications in Guatemala, which has more AIDS orphans than any other Central American nation. Now, however, physicians in the country and officials at the UN worry that a free-trade agreement Guatemala signed with the United States could impede the widespread distribution of generic AIDS drugs. This comes at a critical time when experts say the epidemic is poised to become generalized in some regions of Guatemala.
In August, President George W. Bush signed into law the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which gives US pharmaceutical companies a five-year period of exclusivity for new drugs, discouraging the production of cheaper generic versions.
Doctors Without Borders runs four AIDS clinics in Guatemala and treats about 1,800 patients with antiretrovirals. But some 13,000 people in the country need the medicine and are not getting it, said Rachel Cohen of DWB. "If those numbers in Guatemala were to rise from 13,000 to 20,000, 30,000, 50,000, it's going to be impossible for Guatemala to contemplate the sort of national response that would be necessary," she said.
Beyond drug access, another challenge is reaching out to men who have sex with men, a deeply stigmatized population that experts believe is behind high HIV prevalence among heterosexual women.
"Having people in those sort of contexts recognizing themselves as being at risk is a much harder task than getting through to an out gay community with gay newspapers and gay community meeting places like bars. That doesn't exist for the vast majority of men who have sex with men in Guatemala," said Michael Bartos, UNAIDS coordinator in Guatemala City.