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    Federal lawsuit accuses drug maker of intentionally withholding safer HIV drugs

    A new federal lawsuit against Gilead Sciences exposes how the pharmaceutical giant is putting profits over people, especially oppressed groups including Black and LGBT communities, said renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump.

    Crump, along with co-counsel at the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, and Morgan & Morgan law firms, announced the lawsuit against Gilead Sciences, accusing the company of intentionally withholding a safer HIV drug from hundreds of thousands of patients in order to extend the profitability of the patent it held on an older, more risky drug. The tactic, Crump said, unjustly affected patients in the Black, minority, and LGBT communities.

    In the lawsuit, Crump and co-counsel Bob Hilliard and Steve Berman assert that Gilead withheld a second-generation HIV drug that was safer and produced fewer side effects and complications, in order to prevent competition with its harmful first-generation drug until its patent expires in 2021. Gilead’s first-generation drug, known as TDF, can cause life-threatening side effects such as bone demineralization and kidney toxicity. For a person already living with HIV/AIDS, these side effects and toxicities turn a manageable condition into one that is potentially life-threatening.

    The HIV epidemic is characterized by extraordinary disparity regarding minority groups. Despite representing less than 13% of the U.S. population, in 2017 Black and African-American residents made up 44% of those who were newly diagnosed with HIV. Similarly, while Hispanics and Latino Americans made up 17% of the U.S. population in 2015, they made up 22% of people living with HIV. African-Americans have the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses compared to other races and ethnicities. More than 70% of all new HIV diagnoses in 2017 were in gay and bisexual men, as well as transgender women, of all races.

    “Gilead’s chosen path of inaction is causing tremendous harm to persons with HIV, particularly black and LGBT minorities, by keeping drugs that would reduce deadly symptoms off the market and unavailable to those who need them the most,” said Crump. “This lawsuit is a major step in the right direction toward racial equity in communities unevenly affected by HIV and exploited by pharmaceutical Goliaths like Gilead.”

    Because Gilead willfully grips the market with its monopoly, it is able to charge exorbitant prices – more than $3,700 a month – at the expense of the populations who need it most.

    “This new lawsuit seeks justice for underrepresented communities, providing a voice to those who may not have ever received one otherwise,” Crump said. “As long as Gilead continues to cravenly value profits over people, people living with HIV/AIDS will suffer from a lower quality of life. This must stop.”

    ONLINE: http://www.tdflawsuit.com.

    Feature photo of Ben Crump taken by Mark Wallheiser

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    ‘Ms. Meta’ on frontline, empowering others facing HIV in Baton Rouge

    Meta Smith-Davis, 62, remembers the time she would sit on the porch saying, “You know they say that girl got that gangsta’?”

    “Yeah, she got AIDS,” she would say.

    Now, “Mrs. Meta” is the girl with HIV and a beloved counselor to hundreds of residents in and near Baton Rouge who are HIV-positive.

    Her message to them is clear: “There is nothing you can say to stop me. Nothing. You cannot stop me from loving you, from being here for you, for doing all I can to help you. There’s not any thing that you can tell me that I have not experienced personally, and​ I can tell you this, you do recover!”

    She is insistent with newly diagnosed clients, telling them, “You don’t have to die! People are living longer and fuller lives with HIV. Nothing in your life has to change when you take your meds and remain undetectable.”

    meta davis on screen

    As the assistant director of prevention for HAART: HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Smith-Davis is usually the first professional counselor​ to tell a client that they are HIV-positive. And she’s also the person who helps them develop a plan so that they are less afraid of living with HIV.

    “I do anything and everything that I have to do and can do to enhance the lives of someone living with HIV,” she said. Her commitment starts​ the moment she meets a client—whether their results are positive or not. Facing the results of an HIV test is frightening for many people and the team at HAART is focused on supporting people living with HIV/AIDS immediately.

    “We don’t let a client get out the door without helping them,” she said.

    Tim young

    Tim Young, HAART CEO

    This type of commitment is a standard the executive director, Tim Young, established at HAART. “He’s by far one of the finest men I’ve ever worked with. He’s fine human being,” she said. The non-profit organization is the largest in the state that offers a continuum of services for people with HIV/AIDS including primary health care, medications, housing, employment assistance, testing, and prevention education.

    Just after Smith-Davis was diagnosed in 2001, she walked into the HAART office for case management. She didn’t know anyone with HIV and needed help and support. “There was nobody. I felt disconnected from the world. (HAART) felt like home,” she said.

    She returned to HAART for ongoing care and to volunteer facilitating a workshop for women living with HIV. “Those women made me realize a sisterhood far greater than I knew I could have.” And it is that type of support and love that Smith-Davis said she sets to give every client. She goes to their medical appointments and helps them plan how to live their new life, especially if the client has to do so in secret.

    “I don’t care if they have to hide 30 pills in 30 different places in order to take the medicine, we will figure out how to keep them safe and how to keep them virally suppressed,” she said.

    She also shares strategies for safe sex based on the individual’s situation including same-gender sex. For one client she’d encourage them to use a condom correctly every time, for another the more realistic goal was to increase condom use by picking one day a week when they would always use a condom, then add days.

    Meta davis and menSmith-Davis, who is also a great, grandmother,  takes particular care of clients who appear to be in violent relationships. “Disclosing an HIV-positive diagnosis to a partner can add to or even start a violent relationship. So we counsel our clients very carefully. We don’t want a situation to escalate because one partner believes they can harm the other who is HIV-positive.”

    Her job, then, becomes to get the client to be as honest with her as possible. Especially, since it is required by law to disclose HIV-positive status prior to having sex. “This is required for the rest of their lives or they will face criminal charges and be labled a sex offender.” (Read: Things to understand about living with HIV)

    The self-described to’ up from the flo’ up, ex-con, drug-addicted, homeless Black woman living with HIV, said there’s nothing they can tell her that she has not dealt with personally. “That is truly one of the gifts God left me with coming from where I came from: I have the ability to relate to people in a whole different way,” she said. She uses this relatability to get youth—including her grandchildren—to talk about sex and HIV/AIDS. “We have to keep an open dialog or the streets will tell them all the wrong things.” She said the truth is no one has to get HIV. There are ways to prevent it.

    Meta davis award

    As the state co-chair of the Positive Women’s Network USA, Smith-Davis has met with politicians to advocate for better health services.

    After several sessions—even years—together, Smith-Davis and many of her HAART clients are now friends who she has helped reclaim their lives by getting healthier, pursuing education goals, having families, moving into apartments, and living open with HIV. She has worked with the Baton Rouge Stigma Index Project, and was named a Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016 by HIV Plus magazine.

    She’s often celebrated as a hero for her work, but she said, “All I did was clean their mirror so they could see what I saw… All I did was clean the mirror so that they could do the work.” The work, she said, is being able to come to terms with an HIV-positive diagnosis and doing everything necessary to live a whole, healthy life.

    By Candace J. Semien
    Jozef Syndicate writer

    More stories like this:
    Who Would’ve Thought?
    Fact: Eliminating stigmas can reduce the spread of HIV
    With HIV rates topping the nation, Baton Rouge needs HAART, Open Health, and PreP

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    With HIV rates topping the charts, Baton Rouge needs HAART, PrEP, and Open Health

    The HIV AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Inc., or HAART, is the 19th largest nonprofit in the state, with a budget of more than $25 million. But with an HIV AIDS population of more than 5,000 people in the nine-parish Baton Rouge region, and more than 20,000 people in state, the need for HAART services far surpasses its budget.

    “We have been assisting those with HIV for nearly three decades and it’s been an uphill challenge from the beginning, said Tim Young, HAART CEO.

    In 1995 when HAART first opened its doors, the medical community was focused on keeping people with HIV alive. Since then, doctors and researchers have learned to treat HIV more effectively, which means fewer people are dying and people are living longer with their disease, said Young.

    “When I began working at HAART, new medications were literally getting people out of their death beds,” he said.

    Many people were seeing health improvements from the new medications that were becoming available, but many still were not, and even those who did often experienced serious side effects.  Today, the medications are so effective that someone who acquires HIV can have a normal life expectancy if they adhere to an effective medication regimen.

    “Now, we are learning how to assist people who have been living with HIV for as long as HAART has been in existence. That’s an amazing advancement. We assist many to cope with the challenges of helping to raise their grandchildren, something many thought would never be possible,” Young said.

    HAART’s original role was to anticipate the services people living with HIV needed and weren’t receiving and to serve as the fiscal agent for Ryan White funding in the Baton Rouge area with other organizations to provide direct services. “The first thing we did was to recognize the need for a larger network of providers to serve an increasing number of people who were living with HIV disease with the advent of new effective medications.  In the late ‘90s, we added Volunteers of America, Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge, and Care South to the network of Ryan White funded providers.”

    These relationships aid HAART in providing medical treatment, medication assistance, and case management to assist patients in navigating the health care system. HAART also provides medical transportation, dental services, and mental health services. HAART has established Baton Rouge’s Open Health Care Clinic, located at 3801 North Blvd., to expand medical services and serve the wider community. “Over the past three decades years we’ve built an enduring community asset and positioned it to become an integral part of the health care network for decades to come,” Young said.  “HAART has grown from a small organization, coordinating funding for a network of providers for a single disease, to one of the largest community health centers in the state, poised to grow its own network of clinics across the city, serving both children and adults from every walk of life.”

    “The day of novel treatments is actually already here. Early on, patients had a complex medication regimen that was difficult to achieve and often had side effects, some almost as serious as the disease itself.  Multiple pills, some with and some without food, every four hours meaning interrupted sleep and other complications were normal. Now, for most with HIV, treatment is one pill once a day. That’s remarkable when you consider how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time, although a lifetime for some and sadly too late for others.  And they achieve complete viral suppression, so no more damage can be done to themselves by the virus and they can’t transmit it to others,” Young said.

    But, in a city with the highest rates of newly diagnosed HIV cases in the nation, is HAART positioned to slow down the spread of the virus that cause AIDS? Young explained, “Despite the educational messages, many continue to participate in risky behaviors which expose themselves and others to HIV transmission.  We’ve always relied on people changing their behavior and now we have a biomedical preventative that can protect them even if they don’t take other measures to protect themselves.

    The newest weapon against HIV is a one-a-day pill called PrEP. This Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis pill is a daily dosage of the HIV medication Truvada.

    “It works a little like birth control (pills) where a person takes it everyday to stop the virus from attaching to the immune system if they become exposed,” said Eugene Collins, director of prevention for HAART.

    “HIV disease is not just a threat to those who acquire it, but to potentially much larger numbers of people if left unchecked. It’s our responsibility to assist persons with HIV, not only to improve their personal health, but to ensure they don’t pass it on to others,” Young said.

    After testing positive, Baton Rouge residents are provided services through HAART’s Red Carpet linkage program that gets them connected “immediately” with medical and mental health appointments, employment assistance, and housing. “We provide a total continuum of care, medically and socially,” said Collins.

    According to Young, the strongest tools for HAART are the dedication and commitments of the non-profit’s board and staff. “We bring strong technical skills in the areas of medicine, psychology, finance, and marketing to bring awareness about the epidemic in our community and the solutions to limit and reduce its growth. Our new PrEP program, our new opioid-abuse outreach program ,and the broad spectrum of health and wellness services we bring to our patients are our strengths, thereby strengthening the community,” he said.

    HAART has survived for 22 years despite the constantly changing health care environment, and HIV care changes even more than health care in general.

    “We’ve been successful as a health care resource because we’ve been guided by a strong community-based board of directors, made up of experienced professionals who help us to look ahead and chart a successful vision for the future. Health care will continue to evolve and HAART will adapt to change so we may continue to pursue our mission and commitment to our community.  I’m confident of that,” said Young who is also CEO of Open Health Clinic. ℜ

     By Candace J. Semien
    Jozef Syndicate reporter
    @jozefsyndicate

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  • Kings Children to Host HIV/AIDS Forum, Dec. 13

    Community partners and Kings Children Full Gospel Church will host a HIV Community Forum, Friday, December 13, 7pm at the church located at 3024 Amarillo St, in Baton Rouge. The public is invited to attend. Contact: Eugene.Collins@LA.GOV

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