Guatemala: Promoting generics and helping street children

© Thierry Buignet Click for larger view Today MSF staff give nearly 1,100 patients life-extending antiretroviral (ARV) medicines in two Guatemala City hospitals, and health centers in Coatepeque and Puerto Barrios. Getting treatment to those who need it is not easy, though. A number of legal obstacles and heavy US pressure for Guatemala to sign the US-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will limit the availability of medicines to fight AIDS as well as other diseases like Chagas. Since ARV medicines are not under patent in the country, MSF had been able to treat people with generic medicines, which are 75-99 percent cheaper than the brand-name drugs bought by the government. But in July 2003, the government introduced legislation that will limit the use of generics, block the entry of inexpensive treatments and harm local medicine production. The recently signed CAFTA includes excessive levels of intellectual property protections that will restrict access to essential medicines throughout the region. Guatemalan groups and MSF have urged the Guatemalan congress to repeal the July 2003 decree, and insist that intellectual property provisions in CAFTA not go beyond pre-existing World Trade Organization agreements. Removing obstacles to generics and improving access to quality medicines will help save thousands of lives in Guatemala. Since 1999, MSF has run a project in Guatemala City that provides free health care and psychological counseling to more than 700 street children and young adults, some of whom have been living in the streets for a decade or more. There are high suicide and substance abuse rates among the street kids. MSF psychologists and educators help them on a daily basis, providing basic health care, accompanying them to hospitals and providing counseling to improve their self-esteem. The team works alongside members of the street community to raise awareness of the misery of street life with the aim of relieving the discrimination many street kids face from authorities and public services. The therapeutic day care center in Lomas de Santa Faz, a slum on the outskirts of Guatemala City, provides medical and psychological care for children coping with the consequences of chronic domestic violence and neglect. These children, whose parents were displaced during years of civil war in Guatemala, suffer from malnutrition, physical or sexual abuse and developmental problems. The project, unique in Guatemala, includes a nutrition program, a variety of psychological and social therapies for the children, and offers parents counseling to help them learn to protect and nurture their children. MSF will hand over this program, started in 1996, to a local NGO this year. MSF has worked in Guatemala since 1988. INTERNATIONAL STAFF: 26 NATIONAL STAFF: 132