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Public domain healthcare campaigns vs. patent-based healthcare campaigns: contrasting Polio (success) with AIDS (failure)

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
11th November 2010


This Land Is Our Land is about what Bollier describes as “one of the great explored dramas of our time: the epic struggle between the marketplace and the commons.” And as the footage in the film—of paralyzed children, of AIDS sufferers literally wasting away—makes forcefully clear, that struggle is not just the material for theoretical debate, but has very practical, even life-or-death, consequences.

Our good friend and colleague, David . Bollier of the Commons Strategies Group, is narrator in a new documentary on the commons, This Land is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons. (clip here)

We’ve chosen from a review, an excerpt on what patent enclosures mean for public health.

Maureen Turner:

“In the early 20th century, the American public was seized by fear of the seemingly unstoppable polio epidemic. At its peak, in 1916, more than 27,000 cases, and 3,000 deaths, were reported in the U.S., the majority of victims children. By the early 1950s, the disease was on the rise again, killing thousands a year and leaving many more paralyzed.

So it’s no surprise that when, in 1955, a successful polio vaccine was introduced, its developer, Jonas Salk, was embraced as a hero. Salk, it turned out, was a modest hero, with little interest in celebrity or personal gain. In an old news clip from the time, journalist Edward R. Murrow asks Salk who should own the patent on the polio vaccine.

“The people, I would say. There is no patent,” Salk responds. “Could you patent the sun?”

Fast-forward 40 years to another devastating epidemic with far less heartening results: South Africa’s AIDS crisis, which by the 1990s was taking 20,000 lives a month. Unlike with polio, in this case, promising new drugs like AZT that could greatly extend the length and quality of life for people with the disease had already been developed. The problem was, those pricey drugs were not accessible to the poor residents of South Africa. And when that country’s government tried to make them accessible by allowing the local creation or importation of cheaper generic alternatives, the major drugmakers successfully fought that effort, complaining that it would do too much damage to their profits.

Those two cases are featured at the beginning of This Land is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons, a powerful and persuasive new film from Northampton’s Media Education Foundation.”

Watch the video clip:

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