WHO Chief Wants Access To Medicines For Poor Countries

By Lisa Schlein
05 November 2007

Director-General of the World Health Organization says people in poor countries should not be denied medicine they need to treat illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis because of the cost. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva WHO chief Margaret Chan outlined the problems facing developing countries at the opening of a week-long conference set to tackle the problem of providing essential medicine to poor countries.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan says many sick people in developing countries die because they cannot afford medicine that can cure them. In some cases, she says resistance to diseases develops because they fail to be treated promptly and properly.

She blames much of this on the inability of the poor to get hold of the medicine and health care they need.

"I am fully committed to equitable access," said Dr. Chan. "People should not be denied access to life-saving and health-promoting interventions for unfair reasons. I am aware that the price of medicines and other products can be prohibitive, effectively blocking access to care. I have seen studies that show the limit, in dollars, to what people are able to pay to preserve even something as vital as their eyesight."

The WHO chief acknowledges the need for innovation in public health and drug research. Advocacy groups accuse pharmaceutical companies of failing to do the research needed on diseases that disproportionately affect the poor because there is little profit in it.

Dr. Chan draws a link between good health and the ability of families to work their way out of poverty.

"The challenge is to work on multiple fronts: to meet the immediate need for equitable access to quality, affordable medicines, while also working, at the same time, to stimulate innovation," she said. "The route to addressing these concerns passes through many other territories, including those where legal, economic, and trade issues have prominence. This is the reality."

The so-called WHO Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property was created last year in the wake of a WHO-commissioned report. It called for the pharmaceutical industry to slash the price of drugs sold in developing countries. Many drug companies say they have already done so.

The negotiations taking place are aimed at drawing up a plan of action and strategy for research and development that will be beneficial for poor countries. The final plan of action will be presented to the World Health Assembly in May.