AIDS is a huge problem in Africa and at one time some expressed fears that it would not only wipe out a huge proportion of the population, but all healthcare provision as well. Viewed in that light it's hard for Westerners to understand the government of South Africa. At times it has sounded dangerously close to denial that there is an AIDS problem at all.
Of the 36 million AIDS sufferers world-wide, 25 million live in Africa. Of these, only a few thousand have access to antiretroviral drugs. In the West these drugs have effectively turned AIDS into a treatable chronic disease. But drug companies are unwilling to put them on the market at a price that the average African AIDS sufferer can afford. They insist they are entitled to recoup their huge investment in research and development.
Under the cover of its public rhetoric, however, the government of South Africa enacted legislation, the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment, allowing it to by-pass the patent laws and allow manufacture of cheaper antiretroviral drugs. In April, after a three-year legal battle, the South African High Court upheld the government's stance.
The South African ruling is a serious shot across the bows of powerful commercial interests. It will invite other governments to take a serious look at the unjust effects of patenting laws. It might include re-thinking issues arising from the patenting of genetic material and attempts to patent the genetic blueprint of staples such as basmati rice which has been produced by peasant farmers since the dawn of time.
But access to affordable drugs to treat AIDS is only part of a treatment regime. There needs to be counselling, testing, home and community-based care and much more. There have to be treatments for the various opportunist infections that are part and parcel of the curse of AIDS. Most importantly prevention, not just through condoms, but through marital faithfulness, must accompany any treatment strategy. But still, antiretroviral drugs could save millions of lives. And Christians whose God is demonstrably biased in favour of the poor will surely see the point of making these drugs affordable, and widely available.