From the “Wheel of Misfortune,” where visitors can be assigned one of five diseases to research, to the mounted clocks ticking away the seconds toward another preventable death, the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines EXPO seeks to inform the public about neglected diseases throughout the world.
The EXPO, on display in front of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health building on College Street, will spend its last day in New Haven today, wrapping up a three-day visit before traveling to Philadelphia.
The campaign is a program of Doctors Without Borders — from the original French title Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF. MSF’s purposes include lobbying in the international political arena and urging pharmaceutical companies to take action to make critical medicines more affordable, said Rachel Cohen, advocacy liaison for MSF’s Access to Essential Medicines Campaign.
Cohen spoke Tuesday night after a screening of the film “Your Money Or Your Life” at the Yale School of Medicine. She said the Yale AIDS Network was critical in bringing the EXPO to Yale, where it has already received a large turnout.
“Over 100 people came the first day,” Cohen said. “It was an incredibly warm reception: students, faculty, members of the community.”
Yale AIDS Network member Amy Kapczynski LAW ’03 said Yale was an especially good choice for the EXPO. She said in the beginning of 2001, Yale students pressured the University to relinquish patent rights to an AIDS drug in use in Africa, which it did by negotiating with the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb.
“The generic price of the drug is 3 percent what it used to cost,” Kapczynski said. “Yale students showed incredible leadership two years ago in getting Yale to put pressure Bristol-Myers Squibb to make that drug available in sub-Saharan Africa.”
The EXPO is organized as a journey. Visitors spin the wheel, where they find out what disease they “contract” over the span of their visit. Possible diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, sleeping sickness and kala azar — a parasitic disease characterized by irregular bouts of fever and substantial weight loss.
Visitors then move inside a heated trailer, where they can learn more about their disease and problems with treating it, and finally talk to a doctor about their chances of recovery and possible treatments.
Gary Myers, a surgeon who recently spent six months in Sri Lanka during the resolution of its civil war, participated in the EXPO. He said neglected diseases, primarily the five featured by the exhibition, did not have enough attention drawn to them because of many simultaneous problems.
“It’s multifactorial,” Myers said. “You have the issue of price and intellectual property [of the pharmaceutical companies], but also the system within South Africa, for instance.”
Myers was referring to statements over the past few years issued by the South African government informing its residents that there was no proven link between HIV and AIDS. But despite the grim subject matter of the EXPO, Myers said the exhibition was really about optimism.
“Some of these diseases are a public health issue,” Myers said. “Twenty-five percent of South Africans are affected by AIDS, and only one out of 1,000 has the opportunity for treatment. We can lower the cost of anti-retroviral treatment.”
Stephanie Djian, another EXPO participant, said its purpose was to advocate a search for easier and better ways of providing people with essential drugs.
“[We] put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. government to acknowledge the issue of the lack of available medicines,” Djian said.
In order to do this, Cohen said, MSF is currently circulating a petition to lobby the federal government and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Visitors to the EXPO are offered the opportunity to sign this petition, and others can sign it online.
Djian said after New Haven, the EXPO will head to Philadelphia. The group will end its campaign in March.