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On the ten-year anniversary of the liberation from Apartheid, South Africans have a good reason to celebrate. But this new freedom is threatened by the escalating aids problem with no less than a quarter of the population infected. Eric Goemaere, a doctor working for Medecins Sans Frontiers in one of the townships, looks upon the situation with sorrow: “We treat them only for the so-called opportunistic diseases, mainly fungi diseases and tuberculosis, that appear because of the weakened immune system. But of course we want to do more – by giving what they are giving in Europe, in the rich countries: triple-drug therapy, the anti-retrovirals. For us doctors it is totally unacceptable to know this and to see our patients further deteriorate …

In a hospital in Omugo, a remote village in the north-east of Uganda, 13-year old William can only walk with the support of his father. He is diagnosed with sleeping sickness, one of many to suffer from this deadly disease. Virtually eradicated in the 60’s it has now returned, striking harder than ever before. Patients who don’t receive treatment in time slip into coma and inevitably die. Others die from the treatment itself… On the day William receives his first injection he is very weak, lying in bed and barely able to speak. Due to the lack of any satisfactory treatment, William is given Melarsopol, a highly toxic drug containing arsenic. It burns the veins and destroys the vessels, sometimes leading to death. To be cured from sleeping sickness, the patient first has to survive the drug.

Giorgio Roscigno worked for the pharmaceutical industry for 20 years and knows it like the back of his hand. Today he belongs to an international group of specialists engaged in finding better drugs for neglected diseases. He speaks up for the crowds of HIV positive women marching through the streets in South Africa, and for those suffering in silence all over the third world. Although he understands the profit-making mechanism in the industry and the accountability to shareholders, Roscigno is critical of the fact that pharmaceutical research focuses the bulk of its resources on cancer research, cardiology, Alzheimer and other typical first world afflictions. He strongly believes that “there is a need for the industry to take social responsibility to develop these drugs for neglected diseases.”

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry lays the blame and moral duty with third world governments. Mirryena Deeb from the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, rejects the common criticism: “There has to be a realistic expectation of where the industry’s duties begin and where they end. But also a realistic expectation of where government responsibilities begin and end…” In her view, the root of the problem is not the market system, but the broader economic ills of the developing world: “for some countries no price will be affordable for HIV, or for any disease whatsoever, when you consider that some of those countries only spend 10 dollars a year per patient on healthcare”.

But this squabble over global humanitarian responsibility is irrelevant to William, who died from the effects of his treatment, two days after his first injection. As one young boy’s tragic death shows – and as this film powerfully illustrates, the discussion about the neglected diseases must go on. And translate into action.

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