No Saints Required

One of the books that I’ve read this summer (courtesy of the Nyaka guesthouse collection) was Melissa Fay Greene’s There is No Me Without You.  Greene tells the true story of Haregewoin Teferra, a middle-class woman in Ethiopia who took on her country’s crisis by opening her home to AIDS orphans.  Over the years, hundreds of children, many of whom were HIV-positive, made their way through Haregewoin’s home on their way to being adopted by loving families.  The real-life protagonist is not a saint, and Greene writes about the some of the controversies that surround her work.  Yet, as Greene explains in the Q&A section at the back of the book, “You don’t have to be a saint to rescue other people from suffering and death.  You can just be an everyday, decent enough sort of regular person, nothing extraordinary, and yet turn lives around.”  There is so much truth in those statements.  You don’t have to be a saint to help people.  Too often public service gets characterized as something only “some” people can do, and clearly, that is not the case at all.

The book also provides an in depth look at the history of HIV/AIDS and the struggles that it took for ARV medicines to become more widely available and affordable for patients.  It is shameful to think that millions of people lost their lives because drug companies fought to keep their patents and the $13,000 per year price tags on medicines.  Jonas Salk never patented his polio vaccine.  He didn’t become a billionaire, but today polio has nearly been eradicated worldwide.  “There is no patent,” he said.  “Could you patent the sun?” 

Unfortunately drug companies like Glaxo Wellcome and Bristol-Myers Squibb did not share Salk’s view.  The same triple drug cocktail that reduced the AIDS death rate in the US by 47 percent in only two years, was long kept out of the price range of people in developing countries.  By the mid-1990s, AIDS was no longer a main media topic in the US, but in places like sub-Saharan Africa, it was claiming the lives of entire generations.  Thirty-nine pharmaceutical companies went so far as to sue Nelson Mandela and the South African government when the leader tried to legally bypass the patent restrictions so that he could make cheaper drugs available for the 4.3 million people in his country with the disease.  Seriously, suing Nelson Mandela?

I know that the world of research and medicine is complicated, and I am certainly no expert on the economics of it all.  I also know that what’s done is done, and thankfully, ARVs are now widely available and affordable.   Many countries, like Uganda, offer the drugs free of charge for children and adults.  People’s livelihoods are improving, and people’s lifetimes are expanding.  However, it’s also important that we don’t forget or overlook the mistakes that were made.  The extreme loss of human life could have been prevented.  The children at Nyaka and Kutamba Schools, along with millions of others around the world, should be growing up with parents.  However, the greediness of some and the apathy of others contributed to a health crisis that will take generations to mend.  Eventually, the world woke up to this crisis.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t take so long next time.

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Comments
One Response to “No Saints Required”
  1. Emma says:

    Hi Ali,

    I enjoyed your blog on Nyaka – looks like you are having a great time – and I am sure Nyaka has also benefited alot from your time with us.

    yes time runs – see you soon in Kampala

    regards

    Emma

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