The WHO recently widened its list to include new (and costly) treatments for cancer and Hepatitis C in a move that “ opens the way to improve access to innovative medicines that show clear clinical benefits and could have enormous public health impact globally.”(WHO). Emphasis on the “could.” While these new medicines have been deemed highly effective and safe, they are extremely expensive; they can cost from $63,000 to $94,500, “depending on the drug and regimen.” (Silverman). These new drugs do make curing Hepatitis C a reality, but how realistic is it to make these newly minted essential medicines available and affordable on a global scale when we still struggle to provide consistent access to the more affordable essential medicines and other basic health rights, such as clean water?
Whether it is idealism that placed these drugs on the list of essential medicines or not, the placement of these new and expensive drugs on the essential medicines list is a mark of the huge disparity and inequality present in global health. Simply conceding that some “uniform measure” to lower the prices of these essential medicines needs to be put in place in order for the health benefits to come to fruition is not enough to justify the decision to sponsor these drugs (in a way, putting a new drug on an essentials list is a form of advertising…).
Farmer argues that we fall back too often into low-tech solutions because they are deemed “appropriate,” and “sustainable” instead of providing high quality treatments and care, even though both are needed to improve health on a global scale (Infections and Inequalities 21). Making a list of essential medicines attempts to encourage providing higher quality treatment, but including expensive therapies in an “essentials” list without any clear direction as to how their cost can be lowered continues to perpetuate the low-tech approach to improving global health. I would even argue that it is counterproductive to prioritize these new Hepatitis C and cancer treatments, though they are new and effective, if more affordable, newer (though not the newest) medicines exist and have yet to be implemented. Quite the opposite of blazing a trail in global health for innovative medicines.
More importantly, making new pricy therapies essential could jeopardize the funding for providing other basic rights: “On paper, essential medicines joined clean water, adequate housing, and a safe food supply” in a list of universal human rights (Greene 11). These rights lead to better health outcomes, but essential medicines weigh more heavily than due their higher relative expense and (more) immediate benefit. Additionally, these new and innovative drugs are so costly that providing them would logically come at the expense of providing other essentials, such as clean water and adequate housing, in a global health delivery. It seems intuitively wrong that a basic necessity would come at such a cost. This being said, if the prices were to be successfully lowered, the benefits alluded to in the WHO report would then be twofold: lowering the cost would make the medicines more accessible in general and would lower the competition between essential medicines and basics like clean water and housing for funding and attention.
Access to medicine and to care is essential, clean water is essential, safe housing is essential, food is essential… but prioritizing one essential over the others in our approach to Global Health implies that some of the essentials can be overlooked, and are therefore secondary to that essential that takes precedence, whether that is effective drugs or sustainable changes to the infrastructure.
Questions for discussion:
- When do the essentials stop being essential? Does prioritizing one negate the others?
- Should the list of essential medicines be narrowed or done away with entirely?
- Should there be a system of weights that prioritizes more affordable medicines? What about more effective ones?
- How should the human rights relating to health listed by Greene be weighted, if they had to be weighed?
Farmer, P. (1999). Infections and inequalities: The modern plagues (p. 21). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Greene, J. (2011). Making medicines essential: The emergent centrality of pharmaceuticals in global health. BioSocieties, 6(1), 10-33.
Silverman, E. (2015, May 8). WHO Adds Gilead Hepatitis C Drugs to its List of Essential Medicines. Retrieved November 2, 2015, from http://blogs.wsj.com/pharmalot/2015/05/08/who-adds-hepatitis-c-and-cancer-drugs-to-its-list-of-essential-medicines/
WHO moves to improve access to lifesaving medicines for hepatitis C, drug-resistant TB and cancers. (2015, May 8). Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/new-essential-medicines-list/en/