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Fire In The Blood – Trade and Health Terrorism

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries. And Fire In The Blood, the aptly-titled latest from filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray, is probably one of the finest I’ve ever seen. In a nutshell, Fire In The Blood is a film about patent laws, the lobby fighting to protect them and the resulting (terrifying) impact on global healthcare and human lives. It is a film that makes you think about a lot of things. But we’ll get back to that later. Let’s begin with some of the startling statistics that the documentary brings to light:

  • Nearly 30 million Africans are afflicted with AIDS and related illnesses. That’s 2/3rds of the world’s HIV+ population.
  • In 2000, the cost of AIDS medication was an estimated $15,000 per year.
  • In the year 2000, out of the tens of millions of HIV+ people in Africa, only EIGHT THOUSAND were receiving treatment.
  • There are three drugs that are required to treat AIDS. Under patent laws, each drug is being sold at an average cost of $25 per pill. The actual cost of producing these drugs is, on average, 35 CENTS per pill.

Shocking, isn’t it? The basic premise of Fire In The Blood is this – there are companies in the Western world that hold patents on drugs that are required in the treatment of HIV+ patients. These drugs are “branded“, ie, given a branded name by the company. For example, Crocin is a branded version of the drug paracetamol. Paracetamol is, on the other hand, a generic drug. Since branded drugs take into consideration marketing costs and other facts, they are priced much higher than generic ones, sometimes with the difference being up to 10,000%. Now, the generic versions of the HIV drugs cost a fraction of the $15,000/year that the branded drugs cost. But the large pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott) are fighting to prevent these generic drugs from being produced and exported, out of the fear that this will bring about a forced reduction in the price of the branded drugs. And the biggest forces standing in their way? Africa, Thailand, Brazil and India.

Fire In The Blood outlines some terrifying ideas and beliefs that the drug companies in the Western world are trying to propagate – when asked why they were trying to prevent life-saving medication from being accessible to all, authorities from Pfizer went on record saying that they believed that removing these barriers would bring about an influx of sub-standard and spurious medication from India. But upon investigation, the filmmakers learned that Cipla, India’s largest drug manufacturer, actually gets a lot of orders for both generic medication and active ingredients in branded drugs. Some pharma companies actually went so far as to create “awareness” campaigns to warn people about these so-called sub-par drugs that would flood the market if generic drugs were imported into their countries.

There are also claims that Africans, being largely illiterate, would be unable to follow the medication schedule and hence allow the virus to mutate and become resistant to current treatment. Fire In The Blood does well to rubbish these claims as well.

We see how the pharma companies make profits of up to 1000% on each pill that they produce. But where does this money go? Not into research and development, the film claims. Fire In The Blood states that 84% of all pharmaceutical R&D is funded by governments and public organizations. Only 12% of all medical R&D is funded by the big drug companies. And they make a LOT of money – on the Fortune 500 list for 2010, there were 10 pharmaceutical companies. In sheer numbers, their profits alone outweighed the profits of all the other 490 companies on the list. So WHERE is all this money going?

The film explores the viewpoints of a few key individuals in this fight – Zackie Achmat (founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and AIDS survivior), Edwin Cameron (Justice of the Constitutional Court, South Africa and AIDS survivor), James Love (intellectual property activist), William Haddad (a pioneer of the drug accessibility movement), Don McNeil (World Health correspondent for the New York Times), Yusuf Hamied (chairman, Cipla and pioneer of the $1 a day AIDS treatment program) and Peter Mugyenyi (Director and Co-Founder, Joint Clinical Research Center (JCRC), Kampala), among others. More information on all these individuals can be found via Google, or on the film’s website. It takes us into their lives and those of other AIDS survivors, showing us how important accessibility to HIV drugs are.

And this is where I feel Fire In The Blood fails a little. It shows, albeit wonderfully, only one side of the story. There are no interactions and no interviews with the other side of the fence, ie, the drug companies. Apart from a few clippings that thoroughly cement the demonic status of the drug lobby, there are no words from them at all. And I feel that a good investigative documentary should show both sides of the coin. It isn’t mentioned in the film whether there were attempts to contact the representatives of the drug companies, so it may be safe to assume that there were none. If dignitaries like Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu are willing to speak with you, I think the drug companies will sit up and take notice.

The movie has it’s fair share of shocking imagery, but it’s doesn’t overdo it like some other documentaries do. And while India, and Cipla specifically, are portrayed as Zorro in this fight for pharmaceutical freedom, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Indian hospitals are beginning to display some similar characteristics as the villains portrayed in the documentary.

There is a small victory for the “global south”, as shown in the film. But the drug companies seem to be winning the war after losing the battle. And this is something that I loved about Fire In The Blood – it shows you a way to get involved. I wish they had mentioned it until before the credits, since most Indians walk out as soon as the screen goes black, but something is better than nothing. FireInTheBlood.com will show you how you can make a difference.

Fire In The Blood isn’t a film, and this isn’t a review. But I think it’s important that big companies like PVR are releasing films like it, and I think it’s important that all of you go out and watch it. And then act to change things that you think are wrong, as depicted in the film.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

– Margaret Mead


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