BARCELONA, Spain -- An important step in the fight against AIDS in the developing world is for poor nations to immediately make a deal with drug companies or other countries to provide affordable HIV drugs, former President Clinton said Thursday.
Clinton joined a panel of former heads of state at the 14th International AIDS Conference to discuss the role of political leadership in the global fight against AIDS.
He told conference participants they were the real heroes in the fight against AIDS.
"Most of what people like me have done, you've kind of dragged out of us over the course of 20 years by educating us and continuing to chip away," Clinton said.
He told them not to be discouraged.
"Obviously these numbers are overwhelming, and there have been no medical breakthroughs and I know a lot of you are worn down, and if you're HIV positive, you may be frightened," he said. "But there is a greater level of understanding and support among the political leadership of the world across the lines that otherwise divide people."
Medical advances have turned HIV infection from a death sentence into a manageable chronic illness, and drugs can prevent infected mothers from passing the virus to their children through breast milk.
The United Nations has estimated the world will need to spend $10 billion a year for several years to get the pandemic under control.
"First of all, the rich countries should figure out what they owe and they should pay -- and pay in a timely fashion," Clinton said. "The advocates and the people representing the people in the poor countries with high infection rates need to figure out how to get the money and what to do with it."
The 15 countries of the Caribbean announced at the conference on Wednesday that they had cut a deal with drug companies for the supply of affordable drugs. Specific prices were not disclosed.
Few other countries have taken similar action, although several in Africa and elsewhere have sought -- in some cases successfully -- lower-cost drugs for their people.
"You either need to make a deal you can live with the drug companies, or Brazil has announced they are going to provide generics, and India has announced they are," Clinton said. "This needs to be done and done now."
Help from the rich
Once the deals are made, developing countries need to work out how much they can pay and then go after the rest from the rich nations, he said.
"It's easier to do something specific. I think that's important," Clinton.
"My advice is push every country you can to make their deals with the drug companies. If the deals are unsatisfactory, go to Brazil or India -- the U.N. is certifying those drugs," Clinton said. "Then come to the rest of us and say 'OK, this is what we need: Here's what we need for medicine and here's what we need for prevention.'"
Using that strategy will make it much easier for politicians in rich nations to say yes, Clinton said.
At the conference, this "health gap" between rich and poor countries is stirring fierce passions among delegates this week.
Everyone agrees that vast financial aid is needed to bring the epidemic under control.
Some say industrialized countries bear the moral burden to do so. Others say that pharmaceutical companies should voluntarily give up patents to allow generic copies. Still others insist that African governments must dig further into their own pockets.