Should AIDS Activists and Pharma Just Get Along?

Published: July 12, 2011

I’m having an identity crisis. Am I an AIDS activist, ready to question authority and demand high standards of service for those living with HIV/AIDS? Or am I a “resource” for the pharmaceutical industry, so that they might craft more effective community programs that will lead AIDS patients to “care.”

And that care, no matter how they frame it or how sunny the smiles of their community liaisons, ideally would lead patients to their HIV drug product line.

In this video episode of My Fabulous Disease, I take you along to a community advisory board meeting (CAB) for HIV drug manufacturer Janssen Therapeutics, formerly known as Tibotec. There was something about the cordial way in which the invited HIV advocates provided helpful feedback to the pharmaceutical executives that felt… a little strange.
 
Although I have agreed to keep the particulars of the meeting private, I will say that there were no fireworks on display – or any real antagonism to speak of. We advocates (”activists” seems like too strong a word) offered our best advice to Janssen, they appreciated it very much, lunch was served, and everyone left happy.

And I felt as if I had failed somehow. I had allowed the topics to be entirely in the hands of our hosts, and any issues that deserved discussion but were not on our elegantly typed agenda – educating patients about treatment risks, or, God forbid, drug pricing – were never discussed. I didn’t feel like much of an activist. I felt like a focus group member.
 
It’s very possible that my attitude here is outdated. In the early days, we took to the streets because societal apathy and ignorance demanded it. We protested and threw red paint and otherwise shamed the pharmaceuticals into better medications, broader access and more community involvement. Those battles were waged (and largely succeeded) many years ago, while pharma has come through with an astounding arsenal of successful HIV medications. Why does something deep inside me resist civil dialogue that advances our mutual interests? Am I living in the past, being an activist without a cause?
 
Clearly, we have some common goals, chief among them HIV testing and access to treatment. And pharma has resources that community organizations could only dream of, so advising them on creating the best campaigns possible (to get tested, to “get into care”) makes sense. So why was I so ambivalent?

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