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Issue 347

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HEALTH

Facial-hair cream to the rescue
Tropical-disease drugs in critical condition

Malaria is killing between one and two million people each year, 90 per cent of them in Africa and more than half of them young children. And visceral leishmaniasis will kill half a million in the developing world if they don't receive treatment. These are neglected, seriously disabling or life-threatening diseases that mainly affect people in the poor world, and for which treatment options are inadequate or do not exist. In their own right, they don't constitute a valuable enough 'market' to stimulate adequate research and development for new medicines by the pharmaceutical industry.

Take sleeping sickness. Civil war and the mass movement of civilians fleeing conflict has led to an epidemic of the disease through Uganda, DR Congo, Angola, Congo Brazzaville and Sudan. Sixty million Africans are at risk from catching this often-fatal disease. Although 45,000 cases of sleeping sickness were reported in 1999, the World Health Organization estimates that the number of people actually affected is 10 times greater. Yet it's a disease that most people living in industrialized countries haven't heard of. And because it poses no threat to rich-world consumers, there is little incentive to research effective drugs to treat it.

So until very recently the only drug available to patients infected with sleeping sickness was an archaic treatment first made 50 years ago that has a 1-in-20 chance of killing them. This drug - melarsoprol - is a derivative of arsenic. When injected it burns the patient. It can also cause a swelling in the brain leading to convulsions, coma and death. It has placed doctors in an invidious position - they knew the risks of injecting their patients with this caustic poison, yet they had no other option.

Then, in the late 1990s, a new drug emerged which could treat sleeping sickness with none of the painful side-effects. The new drug - eflornithine - has been dubbed the 'resurrection drug' because of its ability to revive even comatose patients. But it did not make it into Africa's hospitals: despite its potential to save thousands of lives, eflornithine was pulled off the shelves in 1999 because its production was considered unprofitable. Finally, in 2001, the drug made it to Africa. Why? Because a new use for it was discovered late last year: it suppresses the enzymes that cause facial hair to grow. Now - in a facial-hair cream costing $54 a tube - it is again deemed worthy of manufacture.

The discovery of a cosmetic use for the drug is good news for those at risk of sleeping sickness in Africa. The pharmaceutical companies say they will donate 60,000 vials of free eflornithine to the medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières in each of the next three years.

However, people in the Majority World facing death from other neglected diseases will not be so lucky. Drug research and development for diseases there are at a virtual standstill. Of the 1,393 new drugs approved between 1975 and 1999, only 16 (just over 1 per cent) were specifically developed for tropical diseases and tuberculosis (which between them account for 11.4 per cent of the global disease burden). Of the money spent on researching cures for leishmaniasis, more presently goes into the strains which kill dogs in the North than those which kill people in the South.

Word corner

Alcohol
Originally alcohol was a powder, not a drink. The word alcohol is from the Arabic al-kuhl, meaning 'the kohl'. Kohl was made from powdered antimony, a metallic chemical element. Subsequently the word alcohol was used for any spirit produced by distillation, and later still for any intoxicating drink, regardless of whether produced by distillation or fermentation. The Arabic 'al' ('the') is found in other English words such as: alchemy (al kimiya, the art of transmuting base metals into gold); alcove (al qubba, the vaulted chamber); algebra (al-jebr, bone-setting, or the reduction of parts to make a whole); and alkali (al-qali, the ashes of plants such as saltwort, growing on alkaline soil).

Susan Watkin

Médecins Sans Frontières International Council President Morten Rostrup says: 'Doctors in poor countries are forced to use old and ineffective treatments on their patients who are dying from treatable diseases because profit, not need, is driving the development of new medicines. We have the scientific know-how to right this fatal imbalance, but serious political and financial commitment is lacking.'

Nicolette Jackson and Sean Healy

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Oil-free Costa Rica
Recently inaugurated Costa Rican President Dr Abel Pacheco de la Espriella has declared his country free of oil exploration and exploitation and open-pit mining. In his inaugural speech delivered on 8 May 2002, Dr Pacheco de la Espriella announced that his Government would constitutionally enshrine 'absolute protection for primary forests so that not a single tree there is cut; absolute protection for the aquifers and the rivers; absolute protection for the coral ecosystems, of the mangroves and the wetlands; absolute protection of wild fauna and flora. We will create a legal system so that deforested areas will be reforested with native species and to make clear that we won't be an oil enclave. We will compete without destroying nature because, beyond the events of the moment, our rich biodiversity will always be a great wealth and we will preserve it.'

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US ban on Israel boycott
US citizens who wish to boycott Israeli goods in protest at the Palestinian situation may find themselves in trouble. Such boycotts are actually illegal under US law. US Department of Commerce trade amendments 'counteract the participation of US citizens... in economic boycotts or embargoes'. They cover 'all persons and every aspect of commerce'.

The legislation was passed in the 1970s to target the Arab League boycott of Israel, and rules that: 'Refusal to do business with Israel may result in a fine of up to $50,000 and five years' imprisonment.'

Ernesto Cienfuegos, editor of Californian news agency La Voz Aztlan who has promoted the Israeli boycott, is threatened by the Act, which was updated in November 2000. The maximum imprisonment is ten years.

Nevertheless, other US citizens are risking the boycott-ban laws. US company Texas Exports denied auto-parts sales to an Israeli company. CEO John Harris said: 'We urge you to rein in your military and stop oppression of the Palestinian people. Your country has lost the respect of the civilized world.' Hundreds of negative calls and death threats ensued.

On US campuses students are demanding that universities divest themselves of Israel-linked endowments and investments. The University of California, for example, has $3.5 billion invested in companies with significant holdings in Israel. Israeli academics too are demanding severance of academic ties with their country. Defying hate mail, professors from Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion and Haifa Universities in Israel have joined their US colleagues' initiatives.

An 'appeal to the world' has also been initiated by 26 Jewish citizens and nine Jews of other nationalities calling for a global boycott of all Israeli 'exports, leisure and tourism in the hope that it will have the same positive result that the boycott of South Africa had' on the apartheid regime there. Jewish endorsements have flooded in from Iceland to India, from the Arctic to the Antipodes. The boycott movement is gathering momentum, despite the US ban.

Felicity Arbuthnot
www.redress.btinternet.co.uk
www.bxa.doc.gov/AntiboycottCompliance/OACRequirements.html
www.bigcampaign.org.uk

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Aid to the rich
Worth $3.3 billion, Australia's richest man, Kerry Packer does not fit the picture of a person in need of aid. But while the public's attention is on the high-profile media group Publishing & Broadcasting Limited, controlled by the Packers, another of their companies - GRM International - manages aid projects funded by the Australian Government and the Asian Development Bank.

Like most companies delivering aid, GRM's main expertise is management. Such companies have only minimal expertise in the services they are contracted to deliver: in GRM's case this includes education, health and public-sector reform. An example is a $16-million Australian-funded project to improve English, science and maths teaching in the Philippines.

Not only does GRM manage these projects but, like all private companies in the aid sector, it also profits from them. According to Aidwatch, a non-profit organization monitoring aid, almost all Australian aid is administered in this way, with only five per cent handled by Australian NGOs.

As Australian aid is tied (donated on the condition that goods and services come from the donor country), 80 per cent of official aid is spent on Australian goods and services. This assists companies such as Packer's, as well as those working on the projects - consultants routinely command tax-free salaries over $55,000, with short-termers receiving up to $810 per day.

This policy is mirrored by other donors such as Canada and the US, despite the concern that it increases procurement costs to the South by between 15 and 30 per cent. Eyes are now turned to Britain, which untied its own aid in April 2001.

Clare Doube

More information:
Aidwatch: www.aidwatch.org.au
GRM International: www.grm.com.au

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Electromagnetic exposure: real risks or paranoia?
More and more studies are showing serious adverse health effects caused by electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Completed research now includes multiple studies that have linked power lines with childhood cancers; computer exposure with miscarriages; and EMF exposure of workers in high-exposure occupations (such as electrical workers) with cancer and congenital problems in their children. Over 90 studies have also concluded that mobile phones cause cancers and have cardiac, reproductive and neurological effects.

Despite these findings, many insiders maintain the jury is still out. Failure to acknowledge a possible problem means that ways to prevent adverse health effects from EMF exposure are presently being ignored. According to Dr Neil Cherry, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Health at Lincoln University in Aotearoa/New Zealand: 'Technology exists to make mobile and cordless phones 20 times safer, and patents have been taken out on this technology. But companies won't change as that would mean admitting that mobiles are currently dangerous.'

Industry influence could also be having an impact. Cherry says that '80 per cent of research is financed by industry' and that 'certain independent advisers on committees have industry links'. This could explain recent changes to Italian legislation. The current Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns three TV stations. Since his election, the acceptable limit for EMF exposure in Italy has been raised.

Clare Doube

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GUATEMALA

Testimony of the dead
Former dictators brought to justice by their victims

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Seriously... You couldn't make this stuff up

Yes Men say 'No'
'The World Trade Organization', the website of an Australian accountancy association reported last month, 'is to be disbanded and reformed based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights'. Questions were asked in the Canadian parliament. There can only be one possible explanation for this dramatic about-face by the WTO.

The Yes Men have hit again.

The worlds' wittiest activists have for three years been the proprieters of the shadowy www.gatt.org website that spoofs that of the WTO's. Several times they have been invited to speak on behalf of the global trade institution. Each time they have pushed their free-trade satire further - arguing for selling votes to the highest corporate bidder, or making the poor 'recycle' hamburgers to cure endemic hunger - only to be met with applause from their unsuspecting audiences.

This time, they gave a speech to eager accountants in Australia and declared the dissolution of the WTO altogether.

'It isn't humour this time,' said Andy Bichlbaum, who 'represented' the WTO in Sydney. 'We really do want to dissolve the WTO and rewrite its charter so that the poor benefit rather than suffer from trade policy.'

After overcoming their initial shock, the idea seemed to grow on the audience of accountants who began to offer suggestions for how world trade could benefit the poor. These included moving the headquarters from Switzerland to a Third World country. 'I'm as right-wing as the next fellow,' said one, 'but it's time we gave something back to the countries we've been doing so well from.'

After the events in Sydney, the Yes Men are optimistic. 'The accountants offered us all kinds of useful suggestions on how to make sure the new version of the WTO benefits the poor,' said Mike Bonanno who helped prepare the speech. 'We feel kind of bad for misleading them, but they came up with much better plans for the future than we could. We hope they'll accept our apologies and keep working with us.'

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In a small town in the province of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, crews are working to excavate various hillside graves. They expect to find the bodies of more than 100 villagers who were massacred in the 1980s, when US-sponsored military governments eliminated 626 rural villages in an attempt to suppress leftist guerillas. Now, anthropologists are working to recover remains that the victims' families might give a proper burial. In the process, they are uncovering what may become crucial evidence in lawsuits charging former dictators Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt with genocide.

But challenging generals like Montt, who remains a political power in the country (see Worldbeaters NI 338), is a perilous endeavor. Over the past six months members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation and other human-rights workers have received repeated death threats.  One letter said: 'In a war there are no guilty parties, and it is not your place to judge us.'

The threats culminated on 29 April with the murder of Guillermo Ovalle de León, a staffer at the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation. While police have insisted on treating the murder as a 'common crime', the political connection cannot be overlooked. The murder coincided with the start of a Foundation-supported civil case concerning the 1995 massacre of refugees in Xamán. According to one of the Foundation's founding directors, Gustavo Meono, ten minutes before the killing an unnamed caller contacted the office to play a recording of a funeral march.

The police handling of this case fits with a long history of government complicity in human-rights abuses. In 1998, just two days after releasing a report on the genocide entitled Never Again, Bishop Juan Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death with a concrete block. Police first theorized that this, too, constituted a common crime. Later, authorities speculated that another priest, supposedly a gay lover, had committed a 'crime of passion'. Only intense pressure from human-rights activists forced a serious investigation, which resulted in the sentencing of Colonel Byron Disrael Lima and two other military officers to 30 years in prison for the murder - a remarkable blow against Guatemala's long-standing culture of impunity for the army.

Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a co-plaintiff with Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum in a Spanish genocide case against past dictators Montt and Garcia, says: 'I want this case to teach a lesson to other human rights violators around the world'. By bringing these powerful Generals to trial, she explains, 'the world will know and believe what happened to the people of Guatemala'. As with the trial of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, high-profile lawsuits can serve not only to bolster international solidarity, but also to transform an ossified national judiciary. 'We know the risks and are afraid of what might happen to us', stated a witness in the genocide trial, 'but we are looking to honor the death of our loved ones by speaking up and demanding justice'.

In doing so, and in defying an atmosphere of intimidation, the communities once targeted for genocide assert that there are criminals in war. Their victims now speak from beyond the grave to judge them.

Mark Engler and Alexandra Durbin

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West Papua clampdown
A key member of the West Papuan Koteka Tribal Assembly, Benny Wenda, was arrested 8 June by the Indonesian army. The Indonesian Government which rules the region is attempting to clamp down on pro-independence activists (see West Papua NI 344). In November the political leader Theys Eluay was assassinated. Papuan groups fear that the army is attempting to provoke the local population, in order to be able to crush pro-independence activities by clamping down hard in response.

To call the Indonesian police and army in West Papua over the Benny Wenda case: www.westpapua.net/news/02/05/090502-phones.htm

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