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Thought Leader Uncategorized Global Health

Developing Countries Need Access to Essential Medicines for Noncommunicable Diseases

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Dave Ross, ScD

By Dave Ross, ScD, president and CEO, The Task Force for Global Health

I recently had the opportunity to meet with an Atlanta-based pharmaceutical firm about partnering to improve access to epilepsy treatment for people in developing countries. Our conversation quickly turned to the dilemma facing many private sector companies that want to do more for global health. How can they make their product available to developing countries while meeting their financial obligations to their shareholders?

People suffering from epilepsy and other chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) require daily regimens of medicines to manage their conditions. However, most people outside North America and Europe – as many as two billion people – do not have access to these drugs and, as a result, often suffer from complications and early death from NCDs.

A staggering 16 million people between ages 30 and 70 die each year of these diseases worldwide, of which 82 percent are in developing countries. Without greater access to essential medicines, developing countries will continue to bear a disproportionate burden of deaths from NCDs.

The global health community continues to grapple with the issue of access to essential medicines. Donation models have been successful in reducing the burden of infectious diseases. The Task Force for Global Health, for example, manages about $3 billion worth of antibiotic and antiparastic medicines donated by our pharmaceutical partners for the elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). As a result of their commitments, three of these diseases – trachoma, river blindness, and lymphatic filariasis – are expected to be eliminated as public health problems within a decade.

A donation model works for NTDs because they can be eliminated and don’t require open-ended commitments by our pharmaceutical partners. But drug donations are not a viable business model for NCDs, which require lifelong treatment.

A market-based framework is needed that will increase access to essential medicines while ensuring companies can make a profit. Developing countries with universal healthcare or government-provided health insurance programs are the best places to start for increasing access to essential medicines for NCDs. Many of these countries have the ability to pay some amount for these drugs and have the basic health infrastructure including secure supply chains necessary for delivering these medicines to their populations.   

Ultimately, a differential pricing structure will be needed to ensure countries at different income levels can afford NCD medicines while incentivizing companies to sell their products to these countries. The ongoing debate is what this pricing structure will look like.

The health of a nation strongly correlates to the development of a country. It is no coincidence that the world’s fastest growing economy is Ethiopia, which has also seen some of the most significant increases in life expectancy in recent decades among developing countries.

NCDs threaten continued improvements to health and development in these countries. Nongovernmental organizations, governments, and the private sector need to work together to ensure more people have access to essential medicines for these conditions.

I will continue to explore the issue of access to essential medicines in future blogs including potential differential pricing schemes and national drug policies that could help provide the market conditions for greater private sector participation in this important global health issue.

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