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Pro-FTA advisers a worry for HIV groups

The Nation

Pro-FTA advisers a worry for HIV groups

By Arthit Khwankhom

29 September 2006

HIV/Aids groups claim that if Thailand signs a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, the access to life-saving treatment for HIV positive people could be considerably compromised.

"The recently appointed advisory team on economics of the CDR [Council for Democratic Reform] is full of pro-FTA people," said Nimit Tienudom, director of Aids Access Foundation.

This includes Nit Pibulsongkram, the former head of the Thai team negotiating the FTA with the US, and Ajva Taulananda, president of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, he said.

"[They’re the] same old people ... this is the utmost worry here," said Nimit, who has consistently fought against the US-Thai FTA, specifically where it concerns drug patents.

The US-Thai FTA negotiation had been paused during the political impasse but is likely to be resumed after the appointment of the economic advisory team, Nitmit said.

"An FTA means the cancellation of those ways out to give the poor access to life-saving treatment for people living with HIV who needed the second-line drugs," said Dr Sa-nguan Nitayarumphong, the secretary-general of the National Health Security Office (NHSO).

The office currently oversees the care of around 80,000 people living with HIV who need anti-retroviral treatment to live longer. The number of people who need the treatment is estimated at 120,000 in the coming year, many of whom will need second-line drugs, which remain expensive due to their patents.

The current annual budget of Bt2.7 billion under the universal healthcare scheme for HIV/Aids treatment and prevention is just about sufficient in the meantime, but it will come under pressure as more and more people move from first-line to second-line drugs, Sa-nguan said.

"Under the current law and trade agreements we have, there still are ways out such as the compulsory licensing measure," he said, referring to the fact that the government is still able to announce the right to break certain drug patents to produce a generic version of drugs to save lives.

"If we accept the FTA, all doors will be shut," Nimit said.

Even before the FTA, the fight for sufficient second-line drugs under the government’s health schemes has been an uphill task, Virat Phurahong, president of Thai Network of People Living with HIV/Aids, said.

Despite having already been approved by the NHSO, the first compulsory licensing plan was put on hold by the deposed caretaker government, Nimit said. "We need a new government that dares to protect the lives of people living with HIV".