Alexandra Beier / Reuters An art handler places pills for the art installation by British artist Damien Hirst in the new Brandhorst modern art museum in Munich, May 6, 2009.

A Bitter Pill

Can the Access to Medicines Movement Score Another Victory?

Mary-Jane Matsolo, wearing tight jeans, gold high-heeled sandals, and a white t-shirt with navy blue block letters reading “HIV Positive,” strides to the front of the Johannesburg conference room. “I’m the one who will make you understand patent laws and intellectual property rights,” she says to the dozen people gathered before her. “It’s what I do, and I do it very well.”

At Matsolo’s prompting, everyone takes turns explaining why they are here. One after another, advocates for persons with mental illness, diabetes, epilepsy, and other diseases bitterly describe how the patients they represent—and sometimes even they themselves—cannot afford the medicine they need. A drug for depression and bipolar disorder is unavailable due to its price; the same goes for medicines to treat epilepsy, cancer, and reproductive health problems. “Most doctors never tell their patients that these medicines will help them,” says one advocate. “Why would they, if the people can’t get the treatment?” Others call out their agreement.

“OK, that’s good,” Matsolo reassures them. “That’s why we are here.” To start her presentation, she shows the group the back of her t-shirt. It reads, “Bad Patents = Death.”

Matsolo is a campaign officer for the South Africa-based Treatment Action Campaign, known as TAC. She was born Nomathansanqua Matsolo in Port Elizabeth, but her Facebook nickname is “Songbird.” This year, she released an album entitled “Soul of a Woman,” and the album’s lead single got some radio airplay in the Cape Town region. At home in front of a crowd, Matsolo’s chief role at TAC is educating the public about HIV/AIDS. To her, it is more than a job. A now-deceased older sister was HIV-positive, and Matsolo watched her struggle with both her health and the stigma that came with the disease. “Helping my sister and working with TAC turned me into a teacher, a fighter, a motivator,” she says.

Nine-year-old Tumelo shows off antiretroviral (ARV) pills before taking his medication at Nkosi's Haven, south of Johannesburg November 28, 2014.

Nine-year-old Tumelo shows off antiretroviral (ARV) pills before taking his medication at Nkosi's Haven, south of Johannesburg November 28, 2014.

Matsolo’s preferred venues are deep in rural South Africa; her 10 million people die each year because they do not receive the medicine that would have saved their lives. The culprits in many of these deaths, Matsolo and her colleagues at TAC say, are patents on medicines. Patents are government-granted monopolies that allow the holder to set the price without regard to the cost of manufacture or fear of competition. Powerful multinational pharmaceutical corporations hold those medicine patents, and defend them fiercely. TAC has a storied history of pushing back against these patents and pulling down the price of HIV/AIDS medicines. But, as the other health advocates in Johannesburg attest, the prices of other types of critical medicines are still sky-high.

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