Israel Enlists Drug Companies to Combat AIDS in Migrant Workers

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Illustration: Children of migrants in Tel AvivCredit: AP

The Health Ministry has enlisted the aid of pharmaceutical companies in treating HIV positive migrants who, due to Israeli policy, are ineligible for treatment through the national healthcare system. The initiative, which is slated to begin in 2014 in collaboration with the Israel AIDS Task Force, will provide treatment to roughly 150 migrants.

Currently, the only AIDS or HIV positive migrants who receive treatment from the Health Ministry are pregnant women - a policy aimed at preventing the infection of unborn children. Other migrants can get blood tests to check for the virus at Health Ministry clinics, but are ineligible for further treatment.

“For a long time, we’ve been searching for a way to provide medical treatment for carriers of the disease who are without status, and we’ve been unable to find a way to fund the treatments, which cost about 80,000 shekels a year per patient,” says professor Itamar Gruto, head of public health services at Israel’s Health Ministry. “Recently, we were able to reach an agreement and launch a new joint program with pharmaceutical companies and the Israel AIDS Task Force.

The companies involved will bear the brunt of the cost by donating medication. The ministry will cover the cost of blood tests and follow-up checks, while the Israel AIDS Task Force, as the organization active in the field, will be responsible for updating patient and carrier lists as well as distributing medication.

According to professor Gruto, “the goal is that within two years, in early 2016, the treatment will be funded and distributed solely by the Health Ministry, without the pharmaceutical companies. The cost is about 10 million shekels per year.”

The deadline comes from the pharmaceutical companies as well, as they have committed to provide medication for the program for two years only.

This is the first time that the Health Ministry, which is responsible for monitoring the pharmaceutical companies, has approached them for assistance in such an endeavor.

According to one senior Health Ministry official, the undertaking is problematic for a number of reasons. “It looks bad that the ministry is requesting valuable products from the pharmaceutical companies. It really pays off for the companies, as they are getting incredible PR through the Health Ministry, and, in addition, they can expect that the ministry will be more lenient the next time they have a problem,” said the official, who also questioned the movies behind the project.

“If the goal is that these sick patients will be less contagious, meaning, to protect the health of Israel’s citizens – then the ministry should be funding it. If the goal is to take care of those without status, the then question remains – why just for AIDS? Why not regulate medical status for everyone?”

Professor Roni Gamso, Director General of the Health Ministry, staunchly denies these claims. “Israel’s policy regarding migrant works is that the public health law does not apply to them, except in cases of emergency treatment. Regardless, we’re striving to provide some healthcare services for them, for many reasons, including the health of the general public.

Currently, pharmaceutical companies are donating medication for roughly 50 patients through the Israel AIDS Task Force, and we’re trying to broaden that effort. There is no issue of influence over the companies, and all those who know me know that I’m not considered a great friend of the pharmaceutical companies, and any company that doesn’t wish to participate is welcome to leave at any time."

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