In Africa, 17 million people have already died of AIDS. In developing countries around the world, twice that many are now HIV positive. Such statistics are largely unfathomable. And news accounts rarely explore basic options for halting the deadly momentum.
But during the past several weeks, some major U.S. media outlets have taken bold and valuable steps in coverage of the global fight against AIDS. Mainstream journalists are making headway in reporting on a crucial issue: How can life-saving drugs get to poor people who need them?
Time magazine published a 20-page cover story in its Feb. 12 edition, combining stark photos with text about AIDS and its victims in Africa. "We have no medicines for AIDS," says a South African doctor. "So many hospitals tell them, 'You've got AIDS. We can't help you. Go home and die.'"
While it's an important breakthrough for American journalism, the Time spread has left ample room for improvement in follow-up efforts. The critical acuity is sharpest -- and harshest -- when focusing on cultural and political shortcomings that have contributed to the AIDS disaster in Africa. But the Manhattan-based magazine is not as tough or explicit when it assesses culpability closer to home in a one-page closing piece -- "Paying for AIDS Cocktails: Who should pick up the tab for the Third World?"
Noting that "wealthy countries use multidrug-cocktail therapies that transform AIDS from certain killer to chronic illness," the article reported: "Despite years of evidence of AIDS' genocidal toll on poor countries, no one has brought these drugs within reach of ordinary Africans. In fact, the people who make the drugs -- American- and European-owned multinational pharmaceutical corporations -- and their home governments, notably Washington, have worked hard to keep prices up by limiting exports to the Third World and vigorously enforcing patent rights."
Interestingly, Time failed to name any of those drug companies. But reporter Johanna McGeary and the magazine deserve credit for raising pivotal concerns in a high-profile way. "During the tug of war so far," she explained, "the pharmaceuticals and Western governments have prevailed. But increasingly, poor countries and AIDS advocates are finding ways to shift the balance." India and Brazil have manufactured generic copies of AIDS drugs, "selling them at deeply discounted prices."
Time's reportage came on the heels of an extensive path-breaking article in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, on Jan. 28, by Tina Rosenberg. "Countries that have tried to manufacture generic medicine have fallen under debilitating pressure from pharmaceutical companies and from Washington," she wrote. Among the firms cited in the lengthy article were Glaxo Wellcome, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck and Pfizer.
Rosenberg took an in-depth look at Brazil's successful innovations. "Since 1997," she reported, "virtually every AIDS patient in Brazil for whom it is medically indicated gets, free, the same triple cocktails that keep rich Americans healthy. (In Western Europe, no one who needs AIDS treatment is denied it because of cost. This is true in some American states, but not all.) Brazil has shredded all the excuses about why poor countries cannot treat AIDS."
The Times article pointed out: "On the shaky foundation of its public health service, Brazil built a well-run network of AIDS clinics.... Brazilian AIDS patients have proved just as able to take their medicine on time as patients in the United States." And Brazil's program "has halved the death rate from AIDS, prevented hundreds of thousands of new hospitalizations, cut the transmission rate, helped to stabilize the epidemic and improved the overall state of public health in Brazil."
Hopefully, we'll see a continuation of the current trend toward clear-eyed investigative reporting about the global reach of the immensely profitable drug industry. Each prominent example of such journalism helps to lay the groundwork for others. In late December, the front page of the Washington Post showcased a series of fine articles, "Death Watch: AIDS, Drugs and Africa," which included close scrutiny of how drug companies have raked in huge profits while blocking attempts to provide desperately needed medication to AIDS sufferers.
A parallel challenge for journalists is to present broader contexts. For instance: When Time's cover story mentioned, as a significant cause of prostitution, that "plenty of women in bush villages need extra cash, often to pay school fees," the magazine did not explain why millions of African people have been required to pay tuition for education. A key fact is that for many years, beginning in the late 1980s, powerful lending institutions like the World Bank insisted that African countries require user fees for schools and health clinics -- all part of the push to impose a "free market" for the benefit of Western lenders and investors.
If a new era of reporting on the global AIDS crisis is here, journalists will be probing for deeper questions and answers.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."