Mooching along the streets of Madrid, my boyfriend and I came to a sudden stop. Outside the ministry of Health, Education and Equality policemen held guns to their chests. Across the street, a crowd bearing signs ‘QUEREMOS VIVIR’ (we want to live) sang about a death sentence to the poor.
Will tugged at my hand to cross to the group, I dug my heels in. I’m a pretty political girl, but I have an air of caution around demonstrations and felt intimidated.
He shrugged and walked into the crowd. I jogged to keep up, starting to translate the message of what turned out to be a group of women, families and elderly people. Some seemed healthy, others wheelchair bound, a few rested exhausted bodies in camping chairs.
They were protesting against recent cuts to Hepatitis C treatments in Spain, which they described as a death sentence. Many demonstrators were battling the disease, but the government only treats 5% of Hep C cases, leaving a bleak future for many people I met that day.
The cost of private treatment in Spain started from tens of thousands of pounds, and with a staggering rate of unemployment, people are left without a lifeline.
Symptoms can start with stomach pains and fatigue, before continuing to vomiting blood and scar tissue forming in the liver, and finally leading to cirrhosis and liver cancer. If treated, it is completely curable and manageable.
‘How was it contracted?’ I asked, hoping I wouldn’t offend the group around me, many emaciated from loss of appetite. The women explained that the majority of cases come from blood transfusions during routine operations.
‘The government doesn’t analyse the blood donations, so we leave hospital with a curable disease but a simultaneous death sentence.’ Another woman continued. ‘They have copied the patent in India. We could buy treatment for 100 euros. But because the patent is owned by a larger drug company it would be illegal for doctors to offer this medication, I now have terminal liver cancer as a result of Hep C.’
Drug companies patent their drugs, meaning it can’t be cheaply copied until 10 or 15 years have passed. Some say this enables the company to continue vital expensive research. Others point out that multi-millionaires keep the patent under lock and key whilst millions of people suffer needlessly. Inevitably, it is the poor who suffer because they can’t afford the highly priced drugs. Do the rich deserve to live more than the deprived?
I promised I’d share the message with my friends. ‘Tell them we want to live darling.’