Making Money The
Commercial Face of AIDS
By Michael Woods
The Toledo Blade
From Scripps Howard News Service
As the last global scientific summit meeting on AIDS drew to a close in Geneva last month, Mr. and Ms. Condom posed for yet another photo with yet another clutch of delegates.
The Condom Couple were two individuals, costumed as 7-foot-tall condoms. All week they waddled through Geneva's vast Palexpo convention center, site of the 12th World AIDS Conference.
Like cartoon characters at an amusement park, they engaged in buffoonery with people, while promoting a brand of condom for prevention of HIV/AIDS. The company cut a deal with conference organizers and became the "official" conference condom.
Each of the 13,000 participants found a packet of three condoms among the registration materials in a fancy tote bag/backpack provided by another drug company.
Mr. and Ms. Condom were part of an often-unseen side of international AIDS conferences, and of the disease itself; the commercial face of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and its consequence, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Dozens of companies engaged in the development and sale of products for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of AIDS poured money into the AIDS conference. Government agencies, private foundations, and other organizations also fattened the purse.
Organizers insisted that it was impossible to calculate the conference's total cost because of the diverse nature of the funding. The total bankroll, however, must have been enormous.
One sponsor, for instance, supplied free bottled water, and estimated that each registrant consumed eight bottles. The brand sold for about $1.50 per bottle in Geneva stores.
Others funded an evening reception where thousands of conference registrants enjoyed free wine and hors d'oeuvres.
Drug companies involved in HIV/AIDS products had elaborate booths promoting their goods in a vast exhibition area of the convention center. Free goodies were the favorite gimmick for getting attention.
One dispensed an estimated 15,000 cups of free espresso; another 25,000 cups of free coffee; and another 17,000 portions of free ice cream. At other booths delegates helped themselves to freebies like male and female condoms, rubber devices for safer sex sex, tote bags, apples, candy, pens.
The big pharmaceutical companies' influence ran deeper. Several sponsored separate "satellite" symposia that were not part of the mainstream conference program.
Some morning symposia included a full catered breakfast (free, of course) for hundreds of people. Equivalent price in a restaurant, perhaps $12. Others provided buffets of croissants, pastries, fruit, coffee, and juices. Evening sessions often included snacks and drinks.
Big-name scientific speakers on the agenda sometimes reported first at the industry events, hours or days before presenting the same findings at the main conference sessions.
Mr. and Ms. Condom and their commercial friends illustrated the great difficulties ahead in achieving the conference's goal: Bridging the gap in AIDS care between rich and poor countries.
Drug regimens costing $10,000 per patient per year are controlling AIDS in developed countries. But they are beyond reach of people in the developing world, who account for 90 percent of the 30 million HIV-positive people.
Money spent on the AIDS conference's freebies and commercialism could have had a real impact in countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS. In the very poorest, governments spend only a few dollars per person per year on health care, according to United Nations AIDS Program data. That's roughly the cost of a few packets of condoms, cups of espresso, or bottles of water given to that largely well-to-do AIDS conference delegates.
As long as attitudes tolerant of such waste persist, there will be no bridging of the gap.