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This month I'd like to take on a whopper: that drug companies have routinely withheld their expertise in HIV and life-saving treatments from the Third World, and that it has required major arm twisting and embarrassment to get them to participate.

But while public foundations steered by famous politicians have taken the credit, it turns out that a pioneer in the area of creating the social programs necessary to combat AIDS in the poverty-stricken countries of Africa was none other than Bristol-Myers Squibb.

I spoke with John Damonti, president of the BMS Foundation, a man who was instrumental in developing BMS's “Secure the Future” program way back in 1999. He said, “This was the first and largest commitment of its kind at the time and in a sense raised the bar for what needed to be done. The announcement also put HIV in Africa on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for the first time.”

Initially, the program focused on developing an infrastructure that would support medicine use, rather that just throwing pills at poor people who didn't have food or clean water. The current program does not utilize or market BMS's own drug, but rather provides funding to the communities which allows drugs to be purchased through the countries' own programs.

“Secure the Future” has helped developed partnerships between governments and healthcare professionals, and people with HIV/AIDS. The program has grown to $150 million, supported by over 200 grants. Accomplishments have included community-based pilot centers in six countries where of more than 15,000 HIV patients enrolled, almost half are on antiretroviral drugs. It has also funded Children's HIV/AIDS Clinical Centers of Excellence in three countries and created the Baylor College of Medicine program to send 250 pediatricians and family practitioners to Africa over five years to treat 80,000 children and train local healthcare workers.

Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear

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