Dr Eric Goemaere opened MSF’s first HIV treatment programme in South Africa in 2000, in Khayelitsha. At the time, the medical situation was dire, with many sick people coming to the clinic seeking treatment. Access to antiretroviral (ARV) and other essential drugs was very difficult due to high prices and patent barriers. Dr Goemaere, patient advocates, and health rights groups stood up to the pharmaceutical industry, and government denialism and inaction, to get these medicines to people who needed them to survive.
What was the crisis you were facing as an MSF doctor treating HIV/AIDS in South Africa in the 2000s?
The majority of people [coming to our clinic] could not walk anymore. They were brought literally in wheelbarrows, or carried on the backs of their relatives. People were dying in the waiting room. While we were consulting behind the door, regularly we could hear people screaming, and this was a sign there was another death. And honestly, there was no single day without a death in the waiting room.
What were the access barriers to ARV drugs at the time?
People could not afford it. It was as simple as that. [And] there was a blockage at the government level. All sorts of things came out – that they were toxic, that the drugs were killing people, problems with the tests. There was a lot of denial on ARVs.
How were you able to get drugs to patients then?
We shipped them clandestinely, because we could not officially pass them through. The idea was the defiance campaign [of illegally importing affordable HIV drugs] will only work if we put a few people on treatment, and everybody will see it works. It’s exactly what we did.