Health inequalities have been around for as long as I can remember. I recently had a very lengthy discussion with a colleague of mine about the valuable work being done by charities and campaign groups to tackle this very issue and such differences that exist in healthcare provision and access to vital medicines. Much of this work involves addressing important issues such as access to services, access to medicines, treatments, education and information.
One such charity, Health Poverty Action have long campaigned for access to affordable medicines in poor nations, particularly Africa and parts of Asia. India is one of the biggest producers of life-saving, affordable generic medicines. These medicines are vital for the poorest people around the world who cannot afford branded, expensive drugs. The European Union (EU) and India are currently negotiating the terms of their Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to ensure that access to affordable medicines is not blocked as a result of this FTA.
Big pharmaceutical companies keep their products unnecessarily high, primarily for profit. But this ensures that only those who can afford it can gain access to the treatment. Diseases that afflict poorer nations such as malaria, TB and AIDS does not generate the kind of interest from wealthier nations because these diseases are not endemic in these countries. Equally, poor countries cannot afford these expensive drugs and so the profit potential for these big pharmaceitical industries does not encourage them to invest in treating the poor because there is no financial gain for them. To make matters worse, they have also had a part to play in ensuring that the cheaper, generic drugs which will offer the same treatment but at a fraction of the cost, is not made available through patenting laws and intellectual property rights. In essence, what they do is ensure that the patent for their branded drug is long-lasting and charging a very high price for it in order for a poorer country to produce it.
Many of the poorest people around the world are unable to purchase expensive, genuine branded drugs and unwittingly buy cheaper, fake medicines that have infiltrated the markets worldwide. The reality is that it costs lives. Counterfeit medicines/drugs is a term that is familiar to those working to improve access to healthcare and to address the gross health ineqalities that exist in some of the pooerst countries in the world. A clear, agreed definition to the term 'counterfeit' medicines is currently under discussion within the international community and was on the agenda at the World Health Assembly in May 2010 to help countries legislate against them. However, it was argued that the definition for counterfeit was too broad, encompassing generic drugs (which are perfectly safe, effective and much cheaper than branded drugs) and should be restricted to fake drugs which are ineffective, potentially toxic and a real risk to health. Crucially, using broad definitions for counterfeit could block access to cheaper generic drugs which are vital to saving lives of the poorest people in the world.
To read about the latest briefing paper on counterfeit drugs from Health Poverty Action, click on the following link: http://www.healthpovertyaction.org/Policy/TradeandHealth/IntellectualPropertyandHealth
For more information about the vital work of Health Poverty Action, please visit http://www.healthunlimited.org/