Tracking MDG 6 in India – not a mean achievement to combat the dreaded disease

At the turn of the new millennium, in 2000, 189 nations of the world under the banner of United Nations Development Program took a pledge to free people from extreme poverty and multiple deprivations.

This global pledge for humanity on eight key areas was termed as the ‘Millennium Development Goals (MDG)’, which the global community should achieve by 2015. Again in September 2010, the world reiterated its pledge to hasten progress towards achieving these goals within the same pre-scheduled time period.

Combating HIV/AIDS is the sixth of the eight MDGs that India, along with other 188 nations, is expected to achieve by 2015.

Looking Back:

Way back in late 1986, the first incidence HIV in India was diagnosed among the sex workers in Chennai. The origin of the infection was reported to be from the foreign visitors.

The National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) was constituted in the following year and by end 1987, around 135 persons were diagnosed as HIV positive and 14 were suffering from AIDS. Almost around the same time, a rapid spread of HIV was reported from within the ‘Injecting Drug Users (IDU)’ in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Incidentally, all these states have a common border with Myanmar.

According to the first joint survey conducted by UNAIDS and NACO in 2007, the number of people living with HIV in India was estimated between 2 million and 3.1 million. In 2009 this estimated number declined to 2.4 million.

As per the Government of India (March 1, 2011), there has been an overall reduction in adult HIV prevalence and HIV incidence (new infections) in the country. The estimated number of new annual HIV infections has declined by more than 50% over the last decade, from estimated 2.7 lakhs in 2000 to approximately 1.2 lakhs in 2009. Adult HIV prevalence at national level has declined from 0.41% in 2000 to 0.31% in 2009, although variations exist across the states.

Some actionable areas:

As reported by the National Aids Control Organization (NACO), ‘Injecting Drug Use (IDU)’ and sexual intercourse through homosexual route by some section of the male population have still remained the routes of transmission of HIV in different parts of India, which need to be addressed with a much greater detail.

In the North Eastern States, besides IDU, HIV prevalence among the Female Sex Workers (FSW) is increasing. This suggests a two-prong spread of the pandemic infection in the country.

Moreover, HIV prevalence within the women attending Ante Natal Clinics (ANCs) in North Indian states also needs to be addressed with utmost care.

HIV/AIDS and Drug Prices:

Pricing of HIV/AIDS drugs are globally a very sensitive issue. Currently, because of the availability of many generic drugs, intense competition between them and direct price negotiation for newer brands, there has been a declining price trend for many HIV/AIDS medicines in the developing countries, like India.

This situation has enabled about 5.25 million HIV positive persons from the developing countries to undergo treatment for the acquired infection.

In India, people living with HIV/AIDS have access to Anti-retroviral (ART) drugs, free of cost, through 292 ART Therapy centers and 550 Link ART Centers spread across the country.

As per the Ministry of Health (February 22, 2011), there is no gap between demand and supply of drugs for the HIV/AIDS patients in the country. About 3, 87,205 patients are on ART therapy through the above centers (2010).

Recently product patents for two key HIV/AIDS medicines namely, Lopinavir/Ritonavir and Atazanavir bisulphate were not granted by the Indian Patent Office giving reasons of ‘lacked inventive ingenuity’. Though, this is a patent law related legal issue, it has been hyped up as a ‘major victory for public health and access to affordable treatment’.

I hasten to add, despite this situation, all drugs used for the treatment of HIV/ AIDS are still not available at an affordable price to the poor, across the world.

Funding for HIV/AIDS treatment in India:

The Finance Minister of India in his Union Budget proposal for 2011-12 allocated a sum of Rs. 1700 Crore (around US$ 380 million ) as against an outlay of Rs.1435 Crore (around US$ 320 million) in 2010-11 for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Market Size of HIV/AIDS Drugs:

Current market size of HIV drugs is around Rs. 151 Crores  (around US$ 36 million) growing at 11% over the previous year. As per reported data, around 10 HIV drugs are now being marketed in India with 162 different brand names by over 30 companies including, Cipla, FDC, Torrent, Hetero, Sun Pharma, Lupin, Ranbaxy, Zydus Cadila, Natco, Alkem and GSK.

Globally Gilead, Abbott, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and BMS are among the key manufacturers of HIV drugs.

The world market size for HIV Drugs is estimated to exceed US $15.5 billion by 2015. The key growth driver is still increasing disease prevalence in some countries of the world. Treatment of HIV/AIDS with cheaper Anti-retroviral (ART) drugs has transformed the treatment of this dreaded disease into a manageable proportion.

Unique initiative of UNITAIDS:

For diseases like HIV/AIDS, one school of thought leaders feel that the way forward to resolve such pricing issue is by putting in place an alternative system of ‘remuneration and reward’ to further R&D initiatives in the key areas of public health interest, globally.

Towards this direction, in 2009 UNITAID, an international institution against AIDS, TB and malaria, proposed the ‘Patent Pools’ concept. This system of ‘pool’ will hold licenses on various patented HIV/AIDS drugs, which the generic manufacturers will be allowed to produce at a much lesser price for the least developing countries of the world.

National Institute of Health (NIH) of USA has now become the first patent holder to license a HIV/AIDS drug Darunavir to the patent pool. It appears, the ‘Patent Pool’ initiative to be successful, voluntary participation of larger global pharmaceutical companies is absolutely critical, though many innovator companies may not find any significant commercial benefit within this system.

Will HIV Vaccine be the ultimate answer?

Still with so many newly infected people with HIV every day in various corners of the world, a suitable vaccine to prevent the infection would indeed be indispensable to effectively control this disease. An affordable HIV vaccine could thus be an appropriate answer to fight against HIV/AIDS across the world.

Early In March 2011, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute (THSTI), of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India announced together to fund an HIV vaccine design program in India. This HIV vaccine initiative is estimated to cost around Rs.50 Crore (around US$ 12 million) over a five year period.

Recent Developments:

Early this year, UNAIDS/WHO/UNDP launched a new policy brief urging countries to use IP flexibilities under the TRIPS Agreement.

The brief includes flexibilities like, compulsory licensing, parallel imports exemption of ‘Bolar Provision’ and highlights the success achieved in reducing prices in Brazil through the threat of compulsory licensing. The brief also highlights India’s 3(d) provision.


In India, although the overall progress of MDG initiatives is not satisfactory just yet, ongoing intense efforts to control and treat HIV/AIDS seem to be paying good dividends.

It is interesting to note, UNAIDS ‘Outlook Report 2010’ highlights, “Up to 80% of the cost of treatment isn’t for the medication but for the systems to get it to a person and to keep him or her on it. Globally, only one third of people who need treatment are on it.” I reckon, the situation is no different in India.

By: Tapan J Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.