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How patent rules could keep new hepatitis C drug from saving 'millions of lives'

While affordable medicine advocates in India prepare to fight the patenting of a new hepatitis C drug, the US works to strengthen pharmaceutical patents through an international trade deal.
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An Indian patient sits in a roadside make-shift shelter outside The Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai in April, 2013, after India's Supreme Court rejected a patent bid by Swiss drug giant Novartis in a landmark ruling that activists say will protect cheap generic drugs and save lives in developing nations. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images)

Doctors are calling Gilead Sciences’ new hepatitis C drug a “game changer.” The pill, called sofosbuvir, is more effective than comparable drugs, works more quickly and makes treatment less painful.

“Suddenly, it’s realistic to think we can cure most patients with hepatitis C,” said Dr. Greg Fitz, president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, in a news conference where Gilead presented research on sofosbuvir. 

But patient rights advocates argue that the drug’s price tag — an estimated $84,000 per treatment — puts sofosbuvir out of reach for many.

The Food and Drug Administration gave the go-ahead on Dec. 6. Gilead will own the market in the United States for at least 20 years before generic drug producers can get in the game and bring prices down.

But in India, advocates for affordable medicine are fighting to block the pharmaceutical company’s patent. If they win, the country will be able to crank out low-cost copies of the drug for millions in India and other developing countries.

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Q&A: How a new healthcare model could save thousands of children in Mali

GlobalPost spoke with physician Ari Johnson, co-author of a new study that documents a rapid, tenfold decline in child mortality.
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Community Health Workers learn to conduct rapid antigen diagnostic testing for malaria, in Yirimadjo, Mali, 2013. They are training to provide proactive Doorstep Health Care, which includes actively searching for patients door to door. (Muso/Courtesy)

With enough resources and the right approach, ending preventable child deaths may be attainable much sooner than expected, according to a newly released study conducted in Mali. 

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Could treating drug companies like restaurants improve global health?

Academics consider the value of rating companies’ global health “footprints.”
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A Manhattan restaurant rated with a Health Department 'A' grade on March 7, 2011 in New York City. (Mario Tama/GlobalPost)

BOSTON — If prominently displayed grades in restaurant windows in New York City and Los Angeles can lead to healthier kitchen practices, could similar ratings on products — say, a special label on a box of Advil — do the same for global health?

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Female genital mutilation on the rise among Southeast Asian Muslims

More than 90 percent of women surveyed in Malaysia have been circumcised, and experts say increasing regional Islamic conservatism may be the reason why.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

Though World Health Organization reporting in 2011 indicated a decline in the practice of female genital mutilation — also known as female circumcision — experts say it is actually being practiced at much higher rates among Southeast Asian Muslims than previously thought.

The rise, they suggest, correlates directly to increasing conservative attitudes throughout the region.

On December 20, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously accepted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation, saying that the practice affects between 100 and 140 million women and girls worldwide. But nearly a full year later, it appears the ban has had little to no effect in the southernmost tip of Southeast Asia.

More from GlobalPost: Debunking 5 misconceptions about female genital mutilation

A 2012 study conducted by Dr. Maznah Dahlui, an associate professor in Malaysia’s University of Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, found that 93.9 percent of Muslim women surveyed had been circumcised. In Indonesia, a 2010 Population Council study of six provinces indicated that between 86 and 100 percent of teenage girls had undergone the procedure. In both studies, 90 percent of Muslim women surveyed expressed support for the practice, claiming that it fulfills a religious obligation and fosters purity in women by controlling their sexual desire.

“Many people are doing it because they believe it is wajib or mandatory in Islam - a belief that was reinforced by a 2009 fatwa by Malaysia’s Islamic council that made it religious obligation,” said Suri Kempe, an activist from Muslim feminist organization, Sisters in Islam. “Yet there is nothing in the Qur’an that states that female circumcision is required. The bottom line is that Islam is not supposed to cause harm.”

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China looks to a new industry: global vaccines

Opinion: For the first time, a Chinese vaccine manufacturer has been approved to sell a vaccine to international agencies. This could be a game-changer for the industry.
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A nurse inoculates a child against Japanese encephalitis, at a local hospital in Guangzhou, southern China's Guangdong province. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING — Last month the World Health Organization issued an obscure ruling with the potential to transform China’s vaccine industry – and with it, the health of the world’s poorest children.

China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a Beijing-based firm, became the first-ever Chinese vaccine manufacturer to receive WHO “pre-qualification,” a global seal of approval for quality, safety and efficacy. This designation allows CNBG to sell its vaccine against Japanese encephalitis to international agencies that purchase vaccines for people in low-income countries.

The milestone represents a leap forward for control of a mosquito-borne disease that kills 15,000 children each year and causes permanent brain damage in thousands more. But the vaccine has the potential to be an even bigger leap for Chinese industry.

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Right to food wins 'defensive battle' in World Trade Organization deal

Opinion: The Bali meeting yielded a flawed 'trade facilitation' agreement that still mostly benefits international trade firms.
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Fake dice are placed by activists from La Via Campesina while they hold a protest against the WTO at the 9th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Bali. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

BALI, Indonesia — A tense and acrimonious four-day standoff ended Saturday morning at the World Trade Organization meeting in Bali.

A last-minute objection by Cuba and three Latin American allies held up the agreement Friday night, with Cuba objecting to the hypocrisy of a “trade facilitation” agreement – one part of the so-called Bali package – that ignored the United States’ discriminatory treatment of the island nation under the US trade embargo.

Overnight, text was added to reflect Cuba’s concern even if it did nothing to resolve the issue. Call it the story of the WTO.

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How to achieve an AIDS-free generation? Ghana has a few ideas

In the last four years, mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Ghana declined by 76 percent. What's the secret to this success?
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A man walks in Accra past a Ghanaian volunteer campaigning against AIDS. (Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)

New statistics from the United Nations released on World AIDS day this week have global health experts speculating about the possibility of an AIDS-free generation. 

Their hope lies in the cradle.

The number of children who contract the disease at birth from HIV-positive mothers dropped by more than half between 2005 and 2012, from 540,000 to 260,000, according to the report.

The decline in HIV among infants has been dramatic in a number of countries. Namibia cut infection by 58 percent between 2009 and 2012. Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia and Ethiopia all reported reductions of at least 50 percent.

But “Ghana is the true leader in the fight against AIDS,” wrote Erin Hohlfelder, global health policy director for the nonprofit ONE, in a recent report. In the last four years, mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the country declined by 76 percent. 

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In the Philippines, hope and despair are found among the rubble one month after Haiyan

Commentary: The international aid response to Typhoon Haiyan has been generous but needs to expand fast to help the millions struggling to cope.
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A man reconstructs his house at the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province on November 27, 2013. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

BASEY, Philippines — Elegario Ocdol’s home has become rubble. Most of the house and its contents have vanished. Only jagged pieces of fabric, metal and crockery lie strewn across the stone floor — traces of a life reduced to a memory.

Ocdol, a 38-year-old elementary school teacher, used to lead a fairly ordinary life. He worked hard to provide for his wife Maricar and their five children, worried about his debts and went crab fishing regularly to help feed his family.

But on Friday, Nov. 8, his life — and the lives of millions of others — changed forever when Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines. Nearly a month later, I drove with a team of Oxfam colleagues to the expanding front line of a crucial but challenged relief effort.

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US opposition to ambitious Indian program a 'direct attack on the right to food'

Opinion: The Obama administration's objection to India's newly approved Food Security Act is an act of hypocrisy.
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A low-wage earning Indian day laborer removes excess rice from a bag at a grains depot near New Delhi on August 27, 2013, one day after the Indian parliament passed a flagship $18 billion program to provide subsidized food to the poor that is intended to "wipe out" endemic hunger and malnutrition in the aspiring superpower. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

BALI, Indonesia — In the lead-up to this week’s World Trade Organization negotiations, the Obama administration has tried to block the implementation of a new program approved by the Indian government that could help feed its 830 million hungry people in a cost-effective way.

The Obama administration’s objection to the program is a direct attack on the right to food, and it threatens to kill the chances for any agreement at the WTO.

The Indian government’s newly approved Food Security Act is one of the world’s most ambitious efforts to reduce chronic hunger. Under the new program, the Indian government will buy staple foods from small farmers at administered prices, generally above market levels, thereby supporting the incomes of some of the country’s most impoverished people. From those stocks, the government will provide food to the poor, generally at below-market prices, and to public initiatives such as school-based lunch programs.

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'Gun disease' afflicts Myanmar's gold miners

Gold miners drill without respiration equipment and frequently develop a lung disease that slowly kills them.

MANDALAY, Myanmar — In the gold mines of Sinktu and Thabait Kyin, in the Mandalay division of Myanmar, gold mining is famous. More than 30 gold mines are active here, but the scene doesn't look much like wealth. Half-naked men with rusty pneumatic drills and homemade dynamite are lowered 500 feet on fraying ropes into holes in the ground. Covering their faces with rags, they drill gold ore from the stone.

“We break the rocks with high pressured guns, but breathe the small particles that come from breaking the stone. We contract lung infections that we call 'gun disease,'" says Wat Tay, 35, a gold miner from Sintku Township.

Through the night groups of men squat above mine shafts, ankle deep in muddy puddles, waiting to haul out ore or winch up their friends. After working in the mines for a decade, workers' lungs begin to give out, they say. Hidden in bamboo huts, attached to oxygen, they wheeze out their last days.

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