RED campaign offers thousands of Aids sufferers the 'Lazarus effect'

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The Independent Online

When Bono visited the paediatric ward of the central hospital in Kigali last May, eight-year-old Denyse Mushimiyimana was almost comatose. Newly diagnosed with HIV, her tiny skeletal frame lay motionless on her bed while her distraught father, who is also infected, sat at her bedside. She didn't utter a word. Three months later, Denyse was back at her Rwandan school in a neatly pressed uniform, laughing and skipping as usual with her friends. Her parents are naturally delighted.

Denyse is an example of the Lazarus effect of antiretroviral therapy. "Aids is no longer a death sentence," Bono said. "Just two pills a day will bring someone who is at death's door back to full health, back to full life. Doctors call it 'the Lazarus effect'. I've seen it myself and I have to say that it's nothing short of a miracle. These pills are available at any corner drugstore. They cost less than a dollar a day, but the poorest people in Africa earn less than a dollar a day. They can't afford them, and so they die. It's unnecessary. It's insane."

In view of this, last March, Bono and the philanthropist Bobby Shriver launched a campaign called RED to allow big businesses and customers to contribute to the fight against HIV and Aids. So far, six companies have joined up - Amex, Apple, Armani, Gap, Converse and Motorola - and brought out RED products.

A percentage of sales is donated to the Global Fund, an independent organisation set up in 2002 to fight Aids, TB and malaria. Motorola, for example, donates £10 for every RED phone bought, as well as 5 per cent of the purchaser's monthly bill. Gap and Armani donate 50 per cent of the profit from their RED collections.

Donations from RED products are specifically used to combat Aids in Africa. Just over $10m (£5.1m) has been raised so far. "The RED campaign is one of the most exciting and hopeful things that has happened in the five years that the Global Fund has existed," said Professor Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund. "Through it major corporations and ordinary men and women all over the world are engaging positively and constructively in the fight again HIV/Aids in Africa."

About $6m has gone to Rwanda and $4m to Swaziland to support programmes particularly aimed at women and children. In Rwanda it is being used to increase testing and the availability of treatment. Antiretroviral therapy now costs about $140 per person per year, compared with $10,000 in 2000. The dramatic reduction in cost is a result of the Global Fund buying huge amounts of drugs for people too poor to buy them, as well as the Clinton Foundation's price negotiations with the Indian drug manufacturers.

Not only are drugs cheaper, they are much easier to take. Five years ago, patients had to take numerous different pills at varying stages of the day. Treatment now is two pills a day. Rwanda's compliance rate - the ability of patients to take medicine properly - is now higher than in the UK or US.

"The RED money is helping roll out this revolution in Rwanda, scaling up this affordable and feasible treatment," Professor Feachem said. "What that does is give decades of life to people who would otherwise die quickly. The so-called Lazarus effect is when you see a man, woman or a child, who is within weeks or days of death, and who looks like a walking skeleton, and you put them on antiretroviral therapy and they regain their health in a most amazing way. Four or six weeks later there is already a big difference. After three months you see a very big difference: the child is back in school and the parent is a parent again and back at work."

Much of the money donated to Swaziland will be spent on orphans. The country has the world's highest HIV/Aids rate. Among those aged 15 to 50, it is 33 per cent, and for women aged 25 to 30, the figure is over 50 per cent. One of the impacts of this "viral genocide" is a huge numbers of orphans, about 70,000 in a population of one million.

Already 37,000 orphans are receiving food and assistance to attend school, supported by the Global Fund. Instead of children having to go to orphanages, 277 KaGogo (meaning granny) centres have been set up. Grandmothers are given financial support to feed orphans and provide schooling. As children stay in their community they are at less risk of being abused.

The RED money is also being used to expand testing and treatment. Dr Derek von Wissell, director of NERCHA, Swaziland's statutory HIV and Aids programme, said the money had had a huge effect. In 2001 the government spent about one million rand (£75,000) on HIV and Aids. This year it is hoping to spend about 150 million, 110 million of it from the Global Fund. "Free treatment only started being available in 2003. Before that people had to pay for it privately. We now have between 15,000 and 16,000 patients," he said. "I personally know a large number of people who were virtually dying who are back at work, completely functional and looking after their families."

Tembi Nkambule, 32, is one whose life has been drastically improved by medication.

The mother-of-three, who lives in Manzini, about 20 miles from the capital Mbabane, said: "It has made so much difference for me. I'm always fine and sometimes I even forget that I have HIV. I feel so well I'm sure I still have more years to live."