Medicines shouldn’t be a luxury, anywhere in the world

October 2015   Comments

In Canada, we expect our medications to be affordable. A big part of this affordability comes from the use of high-quality copies of the original brand-name drugs. These copies are permitted on the market once the patent on the original product has expired. Unfortunately, access to affordable generic medications is constantly being challenged.

Large pharmaceutical companies have been successful over the years at keeping low-priced versions off the market in many countries. This has been good for their shareholders but not necessarily for the people who need treatment. For many patients, these market protections can be a matter of life or death.

In 2004, I was working as a physician with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I was helping to treat people infected with HIV. Generic formulations of HIV medicines were available at a tiny fraction of the cost of the brand-name products but were blocked from Africa and other poor markets due to existing trade agreements. My patients were dying, and their families were being torn apart. It was only after a concerted battle on the part of activists that generic versions of these medications were allowed into the countries that needed them most.

The transition that followed was incredible. Patients who started on treatment regained their health, their livelihoods and their futures.

For other life-saving drugs, the outcomes have not been as positive. Intellectual property laws and carrot-and-stick trade agreements prevent affordable formulations of many medications from being made legally available. Pharmaceutical companies are not as concerned about their sales in Africa, which represent a tiny fraction of drug sales worldwide, as they are about protecting their patent rights in the lucrative markets of North America and Europe.

Through its Access Campaign, launched in 1999, MSF has been working to help make medicines affordable and accessible to those who need them most. Currently, this goal is under threat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), a broad-ranging free-trade deal that the governments of Canada, the U.S. and 10 other countries are negotiating. Although the talks have been held in secret, leaked documents indicate that the proposed treaty will significantly increase the scope of intellectual property rights for pharmaceutical companies. This will make it even harder to bring generic versions to market.

In Canada, MSF has been speaking out to let negotiators know that we think the current deal is a bad one. Health care in Canada will become more expensive when low-cost generic medicines disappear, and the aid money we send overseas to pay for health programs will not go as far or help as many.

Although the TPP negotiations stalled at the end of July, I believe this reprieve is only temporary. While there is still time, I encourage you to visit our website and sign the online petition against the TPP provisions that harm access to medicines. As health-care providers, we should all be concerned about health equity; our patients should not be dying because their medicines are unaffordable.

Heather Culbert, MD

Heather Culbert, MD, is president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada.

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