Two years since the first signs of the West Africa Ebola outbreak, the world today is little more prepared to respond to such an emergency than it was then, warns international humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), while the lack of R&D into needed medicines and exorbitant medicine prices requires urgent and united action from the world leaders gathered in Japan.
Global Health Systems: ‘Don’t build a hospital without an emergency room’
As the leaders of the G7 countries* gather in Ise-Shima for the next two days, MSF urges them to make a bold commitment to put the means to respond to health emergencies at the heart of global health systems.
“Special attention must to be given to ensure that responding to health emergencies remains central in all discussions on health security and universal health coverage (UHC),” said Dr Monica Rull, Operations Health Advisor of MSF Switzerland. “Strengthening emergency response must be guided by the health needs of those caught in crisis, instead of being triggered only when it is considered an international security threat.”
The laudable goal of universal health coverage is for no one to suffer financial hardship to access healthcare and should be strived for.
But it is clear the needs and threats of mass disease epidemics persist, from flare-ups of Ebola cases earlier this year in West Africa to the current outbreak of Yellow Fever in Angola.
The situation today is a critically limited emergency response capacity in some fragile and developing countries.** The G7 countries should take the opportunity to lead the international community in doing more to cover the gaps where countries cannot cope alone, or where part of the population is neglected or marginalised.
“Strengthening global health systems without increasing the capacity and resources to respond to emergencies is like building a hospital, but forgetting to include an emergency room,” said Jeremie Bodin, General Director of MSF Japan.
Lower the price of life-saving medicines: Follow France’s lead on access to medicines
MSF commends the French government for taking the lead in putting the issue of access to medicines – including exorbitant medicine prices – and a lack of research and development (R&D) into needed medicines high on the agenda. Yet it has faced strong opposition from other members of the G7 to make a clear statement that G7 countries will take a lead in addressing access to medicines issues – including pricing.
The G7 should change course and not only prioritise this discussion, but also to strongly support the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Access to Medicines, which will be culminating in a large meeting in New York in September. At the same time MSF urge other G7 governments not to cave in to pressure from their pharmaceutical lobbies to ignore or undermine discussions on this topic at the summit and beyond.
“Every day in our projects, we see the consequences people face because medicine prices are too high, or because the treatments they need simply don’t exist,” said Dr Greg Elder, Medical Coordinator of MSF’s Access Campaign. “Yet today this is a global crisis, and merits the attention of the world’s most powerful countries to take action. The global spotlight is on governments to finally get their heads out of the sand and come up with a solution so that all people can access the medicines they need to stay alive and healthy. They must also wake up to fact that universal health coverage will just be an impossible dream without addressing high prices.”
Public attention has focused on the exorbitant prices of new hepatitis C medicines, which pharmaceutical companies have priced at up to US$1,000 per pill (or close to $100,000 per treatment course), leading to global treatment rationing for a deadly disease that afflicts 150 million people and kills 700,000 each year.
Today, even with new drugs that can provide a cure in 12 weeks, hepatitis C is the leading cause of death from infectious diseases in the United States. At the same time, there is increasing outrage at the lack of antibiotics to treat people’s drug-resistant infections, which a recent UK government report predicts could kill 10 million people per year by 2050.
Ebola is another glaring example where no vaccines or treatments existed to tackle a disease that was spiraling out of control. These examples reflect an urgent need to change the way pharmaceutical research is conducted so that research is geared towards meeting essential health needs and so people can access needed medicines at an affordable price.
“Governments must stop prioritising trade over human lives,” said Nathalie Ernoult, of MSF’s Access Campaign. “Time is running out and everyone is watching closely how the G7 governments will take this forward.”