Vatican spearheads effort to get AIDS drugs to children — soon

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

South Africa (CNS) — The face of the AIDS epidemic has changed dramatically in
recent years as scientists have created antiretroviral drugs that lower levels
of the virus in the bloodstream, allowing those infected with HIV to live
relatively normal lives.

getting those drugs into the hands of everyone who needs them remains
difficult. Worldwide, only 17 million of the 36.7 million people who carry the
virus are receiving treatment, U.N. officials told delegates to the
International AIDS Conference here. As long as those numbers do not improve,
untreated carriers will continue to pass on the virus to others.

a major point of discussion at the conference, which ended July 22, was how to
get more drugs to more people. Despite what many dub “AIDS fatigue,” Catholics
and other religious leaders recommitted themselves to work to expand
treatment, especially among children.

officials have already begun pushing a unique project to rapidly expand the
availability of antiretroviral drugs for children.

first step was getting drug manufacturers on board. Since not
many children in developed countries contract HIV these days, there’s no
sizable market to recoup research and development and manufacturing costs.
With only poor children needing the drugs, there’s less of an incentive to
manufacture pediatric medicines or the specific diagnostic tools that are also

have a commitment to make those medicines for children at the right dosage
levels, but it’s not a very profitable business. But then none of this HIV work
is,” Anil Soni, vice president for infectious diseases at Mylan, the
largest producer of generic antiretroviral medicines, told a gathering of
religious activists held in conjunction with the AIDS conference.

was one of a handful of pharmaceutical executives invited to Rome for meetings
in April and May with high-level Vatican officials and AIDS experts from the
United Nations and the United States. The meetings came after years of lobbying
by church officials to get governments and drug makers to take action on their
own. Frustrated by the lack of progress that produced, the Vatican decided to
more directly intervene. It did so by appealing to their sense of morality.

recognized up front that this wasn’t something companies could make a lot of
money on, but we also think there’s a moral imperative for them to act,”
said Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, who became the general secretary of the
International Catholic Migration Commission in May. Until a successor is named,
he also continues as the Vatican’s special adviser on HIV and AIDS.

Vitillo told Catholic News Service that the Vatican did not invite Martin
Shkreli, the U.S pharmaceutical boss who increased the price of an HIV-related
drug by 5,000 percent. Shkreli has been indicted for fraud in a U.S. federal
court. An off-Broadway musical about his greed opened in July.

Francis was scheduled to meet with the group April 16, but a last-minute trip
to the Greek island of Lesbos took him out of Rome.

did send a personal message to the group, however. It was strong motivation to
these corporate executives to hear the pope state that what they’re doing is
vitally important, and that they must do it together,” Msgr. Vitillo said.

Vitillo said he found participants open to new ideas and wanting to be

didn’t hear anyone say we can’t do this. They did share the challenges they
face and a belief that if we could share some kind of united approach”
that guaranteed enough of a market, their companies could participate, even if
it wouldn’t be a highly profitable.

meetings gave enough encouragement to AIDS officials that a new target for
reaching children with life-saving drugs was inserted into a document signed at
the High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS held at the United Nations in June. Not
all of the details have been worked out yet, and Msgr. Vitillo took advantage of
the presence of all the players in Durban to continue refining their plans.

said the next steps include forming a working group with a smaller number of
representative stakeholders, then bringing an action plan back to the larger
group. Msgr. Vitillo said they would probably start pilot projects in Nigeria,
Zimbabwe and Congo.

target numbers the group will pursue are ambitious: getting 1.6 million
children under 15 on antiretroviral medications in the next two years. Msgr. Vitillo
called that a major step toward eliminating AIDS as a major public health
crisis by 2030.

said new approaches will be necessary to meet that goal, because what has been
tried with children until now simply is not working. He said he was recently in
China, where some people crush adult tablets to treat children.

the wrong dosage and it’s a taste that the children can’t take,” he said.

said researchers are developing new pediatric formulations that can, for
example, be sprinkled on food. But these must be brought to market quickly. He
said half of children born with HIV will die within 24 months of birth if not

groups, which in several countries are among the largest providers of health
care, must continue to push their corporate partners, Soni said.

our perspective in industry, we appreciate and really look to faith-based
organizations for their leadership in reaching out to communities, identifying
patients and supporting them and offering both care and prevention services,”
he said. “The church has shown tremendous leadership this year in
encouraging all partners to reach the children who are living with or affected
by HIV to receive treatment and care.”

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