In an effort to raise awareness of the global crisis of health care access, Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization, will be in Missoula Aug. 8–10 as part of its Access to Essential Medicines EXPO.
The EXPO, an interactive exhibit, puts the visitors in the shoes of a disease victim. Upon entering, guests spin a “Wheel of Misfortune” and are “infected” with one of five diseases: malaria, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, kala azar or HIV/AIDS. The new victims learn about their diseases through testimonials and photographs, and are given a diagnosis describing their chances of survival.
Oftentimes, their chances aren’t good. Sleeping sickness, kala azar, and HIV/AIDS are all guaranteed killers without treatment. Malaria and tuberculosis, while less deadly, still kill millions of people each year because the drugs that are used to treat them are more than 30 years old and the diseases have already developed resistances, according to Brigg Reilley, an epidemiologist with Doctors Without Borders.
The World Health Organization estimates that 14 million people die each year from communicable diseases, and while many of these diseases are treatable, the victims die because they cannot afford treatment.
America is the world’s largest drug innovator, says Reilley, but all too often pharmaceutical companies focus on lifestyle drugs—baldness cures, Viagra and the like—because they are more profitable. As Reilly puts it, “We’re going to get many more cures for acid reflux before we get a cure for tuberculosis.”
Reilley, a medical technician who has been on seven missions for Doctors Without Borders, has been everywhere from Russia to Sri Lanka. Although he treats all diseases, he specializes in HIV/AIDS.
For example, in the United States, a year’s supply of the “HIV cocktail” costs about $10,000. In countries like Brazil and India, where generics can be made legally, a year’s supply costs $300.
Reilley is aware that the drug companies that originally create these medicines spend a lot of money on research and development, while the producers of generics merely use this knowledge to create cheaper alternatives. Still, countries that try to make these alternatives are heavily sanctioned, discouraging them from producing the drugs, he says. In some African nations, more the 50 percent of the populace has HIV/AIDS, and if generics were available, millions of lives could be saved.
All of these diseases flourish in poor countries, but because the victims have very little buying power, there isn’t much incentive for the drug companies to invest in cures.
EXPO visitors in Missoula will have an opportunity to sign a petition asking these companies and the federal government to focus more attention on life-threatening drugs. The EXPO’s last stop is in Washington D.C., where it will deliver the petition.
The EXPO will be in front of the Missoula County Courthouse at 8 a.m. Thursday. It is free and open to the public.