WTO URGED TO ADDRESS ACCESS TO MEDICINE
by Danielle Knight
Seattle , 2 Dec. 99 (IPS) -- Public health advocates and consumer groups want the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to address the lack of access to life-saving medicines in the developing world.
They warned delegates to the WTO's third ministerial conference here that unnecessary trade or patent barriers for essential medical products - which keep drug costs high in many developing countries - has led to an increase of preventable illness and death.
Reliance on the free-market to provide patients in developing countries who have little relative buying power has led to a public health crisis, according to the non-governmental groups.
"International trade regulation of essential health care goods merits a new approach in which public interest is the key motive rather than commercial interest," said an open letter from Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), Health Action International and the Consumer Project on Technology.
MSF ("Doctors Without Borders"), the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, pushed the WTO delegates to create a "Standing Working Group on Access to Medicines."
The working group would review issues concerning patent rules as they relate to access to medicines by involving both the activities of the World Health Organisation and the WTO's Council on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS.
More than 90% of all death and illness from infectious diseases occurred in developing countries, according to MSF.
About 33 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS - the vast majority of them in developing nations - and 7-8 million people around the world had active tuberculosis, it added.
"Life-saving medicines are available but they are too expensive, due in large part to patent protection," said Bernard Pecoul, director of the group's Access to Essential Medicines Campaign.
He said that many of the patients that the international humanitarian organisation treats were dying because of lack of research and development for neglected diseases.
"This market failure is a public health crisis...the WTO must take the lead to ensure that trade of essential medicines is regulated in the interest of public health," Pecoul said.
"As delegates of the WTO, we want you to recognize your political responsibility in guaranteeing that public health takes priority over trade," he told the WTO's 135 member states.
Pecoul, while not questioning the importance of patents in stimulating research and development, insisted that a new balance between protecting intellectual property and assuring the rights of individuals to access to medicines "must be found."
"People with AIDS-related meningitis in Kenya are dying because the price of the only effective treatment is beyond their means," he said. Patents on the drugs keeps their price high.
For example, fluconazole, the drug used to treat this illness, cost $20 per day in Kenya, where it is protected by patents, compared to just $0.70 per day in Thailand, where it is not patent protected.
In Siberian prisons, 22% of patients infected with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis were dying because they had no access to expensive "second-line" TB treatments, Pecoul said.
At current inflated prices, second-line treatment cost between $5,000-8,000 per patient, he said. "Again, companies are using patents to maintain inflated prices."
Health advocacy groups praised US President Bill Clinton's promise, made to WTO delegates on Wednesday, to loosen the US grip on medical patents to make "desperately-needed drugs" available to developing countries.
"The United States will implement its health care and trade policies in a manner that ensures that people in the poorest countries won't have to go without medicine they so desperately need," Clinton said in a speech to mark World AIDS Day. The Clinton administration previously had endured heavy criticism from AIDS activists over its clashes with South Africa, where local manufacturers sought to make inexpensive generic versions of AIDS drugs or to import US medicines at lower prices from third countries. And the lack of access to existing drugs because of high costs was not the only problem, said non-governmental organizations.
Often if pharmaceutical companies will not be able to make a profit from a certain medicine because it mainly effects the poor in developing countries, they will stop production and distribution of the drug or they will not invest in research on medicines for certain illnesses, like Malaria, the groups said.
"Market forces alone are not enough to stimulate research and development for neglected diseases," said Pecoul.
While pharmaceutical companies currently poured money into such non-essential items as diet pills, a lucrative market for life-saving drugs simply does not exist.
Out of 1,233 new drugs brought onto the market worldwide between 1975 and 1997, only 13 were for tropical diseases, Pecoul noted.
In Uganda and Sudan, for example, patients suffering from 'sleeping sickness', a fatal neurological disease endemic in Africa, had no access to the life-saving drug, DFMO, since production had abandoned by the manufacturer because it did not offer enough financial return.
"We cannot and will not ignore this," said Pecoul. "Our patients our dying, not because their diseases are incurable, but because as consumers, they do not provide a viable market for pharmaceutical products." (SUNS4566)
The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS).