James Orbinski's fight of a lifetime / by KirstenStudio

orbinski-300x254I watched the documentary Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma awhile back.  It followed James Orbinski on a return trip to Africa, a place where he previously was a field doctor during the Somali famine and the Rwandan genocide.  He recalled horrific stories from that time and even though we're not seeing this nightmare as it unfolds, while listening to him we're glad we're not.  It was difficult to watch him just recalling his experiences during his visit, much like An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century (Mr. Orbinski's book) is hard to read.  It requires acknowledgement of atrosities easier ignored because otherwise it demands action and action is difficult when you're comfortable and those suffering are distant strangers.  Mr. Orbinski's book is powerful.  So much so that I wrote about it when I first starting it because of how he so eloquently writes about humanitarianism and what it is to be human (see early gushing blog). I also went to see a screening of Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders just before I delved into the book.  Living in Emergency follows a group of Doctors Without Borders workers.  It felt more personal than Triage in that it really takes you inside the doctor's day to day experiences and you see how those experiences have forever changed them for better or for worse.  These documentaries along with the book definitely changed my perception of government and humanitarianism for better or for worse as well.

Since I just finished the book last night (yes, I'm a slow reader) the part that has stuck with me the most is toward the end.  Mr. Orbinski wrote about his fight with the pharmaceutical industry and outlined the amazing amount of power these companies have as well as their complete lack of compassion and greed fueled behavior.  This wasn't particularly surprising information but what I did find enlightening was the kind of power James Orbiniski found by harnessing support from Doctors Without Borders and other individuals and organizations to go up against these drug giants.  There is still much to fight for but Mr. Orbiniski's story is an inspiring one in that it proves speaking out and demanding justice can make change.  It can also put those speaking out in great danger, but nevertheless the underdog can win.  Mr. Orbinski, Doctors Without Borders and others pushed a pharmaceutical corporation to drop a case against the South African government.  The case was involved the pharmaceutical association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) which include companies that make the most widely used AIDS drugs. PhRMA charged the South African government with violating the World Trade Organization's rules regarding patents.  These drugs treat HIV positive patients effectively rather than the alternative, which is millions withering away in horrible pain until death.  Under pressure, PhRMA eventually backed out of the charges against South Africa and the government was permitted to produce cheaper versions of the drugs due to the national emergency the AIDS crisis had caused.  But that was just one battle of many to bring treatment to those who so badly need it.

From this experience and others like it, James Orbinski worked with several groups under the Doctors Without Borders umbrella (like Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines)  as well as outside of it to bring research and development of inexpensive and effective drugs to populations in developing countries where millions and millions of people are dying from AIDS (a very treatable decease these days) as well as completely curable deceases that are only deadly when treatment isn't available.

Mr. Orbinski eventually co-founded the organization Dignitas International with James Fraser.  Dignitas International's mission is to "increase access to effective HIV/AIDS-related prevention, treatment and care in resource-limited settings by developing and disseminating solutions that harness the power of community."  It is no doubt Mr. Orbinski and his work could be the subject of multiple documentaries.  When you think about the change he has made and the influence to humanitarian efforts he has brought, he is no doubt a great inspiration as a human being.  The real subject though would be to cover the good, bad and the ugly of pharmaceutical heavy weights like the PhRMA organization.  Of course you'd probably be putting yourself in danger by further exposing corporate greed, but the underdog sometimes wins.