Brazil gets it wrong and right

Two unconnected pharmaceutical stories from Brazil emerged this week: one of them praising the work of Aids agencies who have persuaded the country’s government to offer free anti-retroviral triple cocktails to all HIV positive patients in the country (numbering 55,000). As a result, the number of Aids deaths has fallen by around 35 per cent and continues to fall.

Brazilian Pedro Chequer, taking a break from celebrating his country’s progress into the World Cup finals, offered a template for other countries with high Aids incidence to follow. Although the cost of treating all HIV patients runs to £225 million (£340 million), the indirect benefits of lower health costs in other areas, combined with the continued productivity at work of so many people, offsets much of the cost.

In Brazil’s health sector meanwhile, a curious scandal is unfolding. Pills for contraceptive use have been discovered to contain nothing but flour. This is clearly going to be little defence against the mighty Brazilian sperm, although the number of conceptions during the World Cup is likely to be lower than normal in any case.

German company Schering has a subsidy in Brazil responsible for this outrage, and it has come up with an inventive excuse for the case. They said a new packaging machine was being tried out in January, and the pills were used to see whether it worked. Then, the company claimed, a separate company was hired to destroy the pills. Schering say that someone (it refrains from naming names) must have STOLEN the pills and sold them on the black market.

Several Brazilian women now claim to be pregnant as a result of swallowing bits of flour instead of proper contraceptive pills. The government fined Schering £1.5 million ($2.8 million) which is the highest possible under Brazilian law, leaving the company claiming to be a scapegoat. “The people are calling on politicians to protect them from counterfeit stuff and they [the politicians] wanted to set an example,” said a company representative. A legal case will now decide whether any proof can be found for the real reason for the unwanted pregnancies, said to be the result of the pills which are marketed under the name of Microvalar.