Vaccination Efforts In Sub-Saharan Africa Echo AIDS Epidemic
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Millions of Americans have already received their coronavirus vaccines, but poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa have managed to administer only a handful. The disparity is bringing back memories of the AIDS epidemic, when hundreds of thousands of Africans died because lifesaving drugs were delayed. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In 2001, Maurine Murenga was pregnant and HIV-positive. She was living in Kenya, and a counselor encouraged her to fill out a memory book. She wrote directions to her village, details about her family so that when she died, someone would know where to leave her children and where to bury her.
MAURINE MURENGA: It was nothing like preparing. It was actually preparing us for death.
PERALTA: What seemed so unfair to Murenga is that she knew that in the United States and in Europe, there were drugs that could save her life. Antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, had been widely available in the West since 1997, but they were too expensive for most Africans on the continent. Murenga became a vocal advocate, publicly disclosing her status, lobbying the Kenyan government and the world to make the life-saving drugs more accessible.
MURENGA: It took a lot of pushing and pulling and wishing we could inject them with compassion to save lives.
PERALTA: Over the next few years, countries like South Africa took principled stands, fighting against patents to make the drugs more affordable. AIDS activists across the world banded together to lobby rich countries to end what scientists called a crime against humanity.
MURENGA: At least the world listened.
PERALTA: In the early 2000s, the U.S. launched PEPFAR, and an international coalition launched The Global Fund. The programs pumped billions of dollars into buying ARVs and saved millions of lives around the world. Murenga says, as the coronavirus spread, she thought the West would have learned from the HIV experience, but...
MURENGA: As usual, we are waiting for them to finish vaccinating their people so that they can now bring aid to the people of Africa.
ALLAN MALECHE: I think we are repeating some of the mistakes, and that is truly unacceptable.
PERALTA: That is Allan Maleche, who advocates for the legal rights of Kenyans with HIV. He says right now, rich countries are hoarding vaccines, poor countries are paying higher prices for them and the central lesson of the HIV epidemic - that if one person is vulnerable, everyone is vulnerable - seems lost.
MALECHE: If you don't address both the rich and the poor countries, you will not be able to win the fight, beat for HIV, beat for TB or beat for COVID.
PERALTA: Steven Thrasher, whose upcoming book deals with how marginalized people are disproportionately affected by viruses, calls the development of antiretroviral drugs, quote, "one of the great miracles of modern science." It made HIV easier to treat than diabetes. He views the global response, PEPFAR and The Global Fund, more critically. Millions of lives were saved, but people are still dying.
STEVEN THRASHER: Is that the science won the battle that capitalism made the war be lost because it's been 25 years, and almost a million people a year still die of HIV.
PERALTA: He says the same thing is happening with the COVID vaccine. Cheaper generic vaccines are not available, and Africa is being left behind. And unlike the days of the HIV epidemic, there doesn't seem to be popular pressure to end this disparity. He recalls Zackie Achmat in South Africa. He was a film director who refused to take ARVs until poorer people could access them. Thrasher, who is American, says that kind of empathy is in short supply these days.
THRASHER: We're certainly not saying as a country, we're not going to take it until we make sure the poorer countries get it. We've been set into a scramble of trying to - everyone trying to get it as quickly as they can.
PERALTA: As for Maurine Murenga, she eventually got the ARVs, but her fight is not over
MURENGA: As an advocate, it's still - it's about lives.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
MURENGA: So we don't rest until recipient's lives have been saved.
PERALTA: It's what she did during the AIDS epidemic. It is what she'll do now.
Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.
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