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World Cancer Day 2018: It’s time to bring down the price of medicines. Authors: Tabitha Ha, Advocacy and Campaign Officer, Oxfam International and Mohga Kamal-Yanni, Senior Health policy Advisor, Oxfam GB

Sunday 4th February is #WorldCancerDay and the theme is #WeCanICan – a message uniting the world in the fight against cancer. Indeed, the world must unite to stop high prices being charged for medicines, which prevent patients from getting the treatment that can save their lives. People across the globe need to unite to push for tough actions by governments and UN bodies to change the system that leads to high medicine prices.

The high price of medicines can be a death sentence to those who cannot afford it. Tobeka, a mother from South Africa, spoke in 2016 about her experience with breast cancer. She said that she wanted to live so that ‘I can bring up my two boys’. However, neither herself nor her insurance company were able to cover the high price of the medicine that could have saved her life. Tobeka passed away in 2017, spurring on action amongst people who stood in solidarity with her. They came together to demand that Roche (the pharmaceutical company that markets the breast cancer medicine) drop the medicine’s price so that other breast cancer patients could dramatically increase their chance of survival.

Cancer incidence is increasing all over the world including in low and middle-income countries. Women bear the brunt of lack of access to health services and to medicines. They are often the last in the family to seek healthcare if cost is an issue and they carry the lion’s share of the burden of care for sick family members, especially those who cannot access treatment. Breast and cervical cancer are the main cancer killers amongst women in developing countries. More than 95% of cervical cancer deaths occur in low and middle income countries. Breast cancer cases are increasing at a greater speed in these same countries.

This is the case even though prevention for cervical cancer and treatments for breast cancer already exist. The problem lies in the fact that prices of cancer medicines are soaring and are a major access barrier for patients. In South Africa, a 12-month course of Herceptin, a breast cancer medicine produced by Roche, costs approximately $38,000 or around five times the country’s average household income. Yet at least one possible supplier of the medicine suggests it could be produced and sold for as little as $245. The HPV vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer, marketed by Merck and GSK, is one of the most expensive vaccines in developing countries. Merck’s vaccine is sold by Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, at $ 4.5/dose (total of $13.5 for the recommended three doses).

High prices of medicines are not only a developing country issue. In the past 15 years, the average cost of new anti-cancer treatments in Europe has more than quadrupled and some women in the UK have had no choice but to seek charitable donations  to pay for their medicines.

Pharmaceutical companies can charge high prices because new medicines are patented. This gives companies a monopoly on a newly created medicine. Without competition, companies can sell medicines at whatever price they want. The pharmaceutical industry often justifies high prices by claiming that they are necessary to recoup high research and development (R&D) expenditures. However, little is known about the true costs of R&D due to the secrecy of the industry. The ever-escalating figure quoted by the industry and its supporters is based on studies by one university, which has been funded by the pharmaceutical industry. The figure is contested by experts, some of whom estimate that in fact as much as two-thirds of upfront R&D costs are paid by the public sector and not pharmaceutical companies. The lack of evidence to justify high prices of patented medicines, and the devastating consequences of these prices, demonstrates the urgent need for transparency around the costs of R&D.

The fight for access to cancer medicines is inextricably linked to a wider access to medicines fight: the fight to ensure public health has supremacy over profit. Oxfam advocates for governments to adopt the recommendations of the UN High Level Panel on Access to Medicines (HLP) , which tackle the issues caused by the current R&D model that prioritises profit over public health.

Last week at the WHO Executive Board (EB), Oxfam spoke[1] of Tobeka’s story and the reality of the impact of high prices of medicines on patients. The WHO EB debate on medicines represented a fierce battle between protecting the public health of patients all over the world and protecting the commercial interest of pharmaceutical companies. There was wide support from developing countries to urge the WHO to take action on the recommendations of the independent review of the ‘Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property’ without delay. Many of the strategy’s recommendations echo those from the HLP. A number of European countries also raised the issue of high prices in their own domestic markets and called for fair pricing.  But the US and Japan objected to implementation of the recommendations of the review of the Global Strategy – and to specific language on transparency on the cost of R&D. Eventually a draft decision was agreed and will be put forward at the upcoming World Health Assembly in May. If passed, the final decision text would allow member states to implement the majority of recommendations except for a few that require further discussion, including on the transparency of R&D costs,.

High prices affect everyone but they affect the poorest most and especially women. The fight for affordable and accessible medicines is a fight for women’s health. Governments have a set of promising solutions in the form of the HLP recommendations. These recommendations must be implemented without further delay. World Cancer Day is a strong reminder why action must be taken to implement them.

 

 

[1] Under agenda item 3.7

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Half the world’s population can’t access essential healthcare by Anna Marriott, Public Services Policy Manager, Oxfam GB

Underlying the goal of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is a very simple principle – everybody, everywhere, must be able to access decent, effective healthcare without facing financial hardship or being pushed into poverty. Underlying this principle is an equally simple truth – as long as people have to pay out of their pockets for treatment at the time of need there will be vast inequalities and injustices in access to healthcare.

The right to health is a fundamental human right. It cannot be realised if getting treatment or care is subject to the amount of money in your pocket or how much you can beg from your neighbour – who is likely to be equally poor.

A new World Health Organisation and World Bank Global UHC Monitoring report launched yesterday reveals some uncomfortable truths about the state of the world’s progress. These are a damning indictment of government action:

  • At least half of the world’s 7.3 billion people do not have full coverage of essential health services. Healthcare coverage has been increasing at an unacceptably slow rate of just over 1% a year.
  • 3 people every second are pushed into extreme poverty by paying for healthcare.
  • 800 million a year face severe financial difficulties because of health expenditure. The number facing financial ruin has been growing sharply since 2000.
  • The richest mothers and infants are four and half times more likely than the poorest to receive essential maternal and child health interventions in low and lower middle-income countries.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia have the worst healthcare coverage – scoring just 42 out of 100 and 53 out of 100 respectively in the new global UHC service coverage index.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean has the highest percentage of people facing unmanageable healthcare costs (14.8 percent). Africa and Asia have seen the fastest rate of increase in people facing unmanageable out-of-pocket healthcare costs – with numbers rising by an average of 5.9 percent a year in Africa and 3.6 percent a year in Asia.

Healthcare – a basic human right – has become a luxury only the wealthy can afford. Millions of people are facing unimaginable suffering as a result: parents reduced to watching their children die; children pulled out of school so they can help pay off their families’ healthcare debts; and women working themselves into the ground caring for sick family members. There are even patients imprisoned in hospitals, held hostage until they can pay their fees. Just one of these powerful stories can be viewed in our film here.

A radical change of approach is needed. Governments must massively increase spending on public healthcare services and end all fees for healthcare and essential medicines. It is the only proven route to achieving UHC.  The additional money needed should be raised through progressive tax reform – not expensive private finance or unworkable health insurance schemes that exclude millions of ordinary people.

Governments must stop looking to poor vulnerable people, including those in the informal economy, to pay what they can’t afford. Contributory insurance schemes have become the health financing model of choice in many low and middle income countries. But with large informal economies these schemes become de facto voluntary and fail to cross-subsidise between the wealthy and healthy to the sick and the poor. They fail to reach scale and they leave the poor behind.

Instead, we as a global health community need to pay more attention to growing and extreme levels of economic inequality. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a minority is an obstruction to human development, and tackling this can provide the financing needed to deliver health for all. Today 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. Poor countries lose an estimated $170 billion a year because of tax dodging by corporations and the super-rich. Unfair tax systems cost them even more – Nigeria loses $2.9 billion a year because of unfair corporate tax incentives alone – equivalent to 13 times the countries total health budget in 2015. And if Kenya increased its tax to GDP ratio by 3 percentage points in 2014 – from 17.9 to 20.9 percent –  it could have raised enough additional funds to ensure all Kenyans had access to free, quality healthcare.

In light of the scale of the challenge described in yesterday’s UHC report, business as usual is just not acceptable. We need urgent action from governments to deliver on their duty to fulfil the right to health. The resources are there, what is missing is the political will to redistribute them!

 

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Unhealthy partnerships: Karnataka Public Private Partnership, India By Dr. Sylvia Karpagam

The Rajiv Gandhi super-speciality hospital, in Raichur, Karnataka, has been celebrated as an example of a successful public-private partnership (PPP). The Planning Commission of India described it as a ‘possible model for replication and up-scaling’, while the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has been active in promoting PPPs across the health sector in India, with the World Bank as the technical partner. The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), which has submitted a report to the NITI Aayog on options for PPP for select Non Communicable Diseases, hails this as a successful model. The fact that this PPP has been a complete failure and has led to the termination of the contract as early as 2012, figures nowhere in any of these discussions. This calls into question the agenda behind the promotion of hospital PPP models.

The Rajiv Gandhi Super-speciality hospital was set up in 1997 to provide tertiary care with Rs 600 million (US$150,000) in financial aid from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Companies as a one-time grant and as a PPP between the state government and Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited . The government was to pay a monthly Rs. 10 million on top of providing the 73 acre campus land, hospital building, staff quarters, roads, power, water and infrastructure. A one-off government grant covered building and civil works, medical equipments, furniture and fitting, non medical equipment, computers and software, vehicles, pre-operative expenses and working capital. Moreover the government agreed to pay Rs. 95 million for re-equipping the hospital and Rs. 101 million for administrative expenditure.

One of the key objectives of establishing this PPP was to provide quality healthcare to patients below the poverty line (BPL) in the districts of the Gulbarga division where the BPL population has been identified to constitute the majority (67%) of the population. However, data on the utilisation of the hospital services reveals that of the 340 hospital beds, only 154 were operational, of which only 40 (25.9% of operational beds and 11.4% of total beds), were available to BPL patients.

Figure 1 and 2 of the utilization of In-patient and Out-patients services show failure to achieve the hospital’s primary objective of providing services to BPL patients.

Figure 1: Rajiv Gandhi Super-speciality hospital: Utilization of In-patient services by BPL and Above Poverty Line (APL) 2002–2003 to 2010–2011 (Feb 2011)

 

India PPP- Apollo Hospital-Fig1

(Source: Government of Karnataka, 2011)

 Figure 2: Rajiv Gandhi Super-speciality hospital: Utilization of Out-patient services by BPL and APL 2002-2003 to 2010 -2011 (Feb 2011)

India PPP- Apollo Hospital-Fig1

(Source: Government of Karnataka, 2011)

The evaluation report of the government of Karnataka states that “this sub-optimal capacity utilisation has seriously affected the sustainability of the hospital, thereby leading to serious question on the commitment towards the PPP model of functioning”. The report has also found this model to have poor governance and accountability, with poor maintenance of records and failure to deliver on many fronts.

On May 31, 2012, the state government terminated the contract with Apollo and the hospital went into a ‘coma’. In August 2016, hospital equipment was seized by the Principal District and Sessions court for defaulting on payments. According to S.K. Purohit, the lawyer for the company that supplied laboratory items to the hospital “The material seized is nothing as compared to the outstanding. This is just a warning to the hospital authorities. We will hand over the seized material to Court which will auction them. If the Hospital does not pay the remaining amount, the court may again order for further action for recovering the remaining dues. ”

The government has handed the hospital from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Higher Education to set it up as a teaching hospital. This was widely protested for fear of adversely affecting poor communities and employees.

It is unacceptable that a failed hospital is being promoted as a successful example of a PPP. Why is this model being called successful in spite of no documented evidence of the success? As Dr. Sujatha Rao, Former Union Secretary, Ministry of health says ‘The NITI Aayog has an obligation and a duty to consult, listen, collect evidence, analyse, understand and reflect, not prescribe based on the advice of the World Bank and a few interested corporate houses.’

The writer is a public health doctor and researcher who has studied the PPP models in Karnataka and works with urban marginalised communities.

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Will WHO candidates for the big job commit to ending user fees? By Aishah Siddiqa, Global Inequality Campaign Officer

Every year one billion people worldwide are denied medical care because they cannot afford to pay for it. At the same time, 100 million people are pushed into poverty due to having to find or borrow money to pay for health care[1].

My father’s family is one of those nameless millions. They live in rural Bangladesh where healthcare is inaccessible because of having to pay for services. My family had to delay mortgage payments so that my grandmother could get the cancer treatment she desperately needed. They also struggled to get medicines for my little cousin, Ismael, so that he could continue at school and one day hope to escape the cycle of poverty.

Ismael

For countless others, however, such options aren’t available so they are denied medical care altogether. Sometimes people are even imprisoned in hospitals until their families can pay their bills.

The World Bank president, Jim Kim, described user fees as “unjust and unnecessary” and said that “even tiny out-of-pocket charges can drastically reduce use of needed services”. In her address to the World Health Assembly last year, the current WHO Director-General Dr Chan said: “User fees punish the poor. User fees discourage people from seeking care until a condition is severe and far more difficult and costly to manage. User fees waste resources as well as human lives. Yet too little has been done since then to help those millions of people to access health services without paying user fees.

That is why, ahead of the elections for the next Director General of the World Health Organisation, more than 200 NGOs, academics, health professionals and influentials have signed an open letter to the three shortlisted candidates: Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Dr. David Nabarro and Dr. Sania Nishtar. The letter urges the candidates to publicly pledge to support countries to replace user fees with progressive, publicly financed health care that is free at the point of use. Signatories include Dr Gro Brundtland, the former DG of the WHO and former PM of Norway, Dr. Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile, Ms. Hina Jilanni, Human Rights defender and Advocate of the Supreme Court, and organisations and networks such as Action for Global Health and Oxfam International.

Removing user fees is essential to achieve the SDG target of Universal Health Coverage.

Footnote

[1]Xu K, Evans D, Carrin G, Aguilar-Rivera AM, Musgrove P, Evans T. Protecting households from catastrophic health spending, Health Aff airs 2007; 26: 972–983.

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Tobeka Daki: Denied a chance to live by Catherine Tomlinson (Cancer Alliance), Marcus Low and Lotti Rutter (Treatment Action Campaign) South Africa

 

Tobeka Daki 1-formatted

Photographer: Laura Lopez-Gonzalves

On World Cancer Day in 2016 (4 February) the Fix the Patent Laws coalition in South Africa launched the Campaign for Access to Trastuzumab to advocate for broad access to the WHO-recommended essential treatment for early stage and metastatic HER2+ breast cancer[i]. One year later we are renaming the campaign the Tobeka Daki Campaign in memory of the woman who led our advocacy for trastuzumab during 2016 – whilst herself unable to access the potentially life-saving treatment.

Tobeka Daki was a single mother from Mdantsane Township in South Africa who was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer in 2013. Following her diagnosis, Tobeka was informed that she needed trastuzumab, in addition to a mastectomy and chemotherapy, to improve her chances of survival. A chance of survival that Tobeka was denied – not for medical reasons – but because she could not afford to buy the medicine .Tobeka’s cancer spread to her spine and on 14 November 2016 she died in her home.

In South Africa, a 12-month course of trastuzumab costs approximately ZAR 516,700 ($38,000) – or around 5 times the country’s average household income. Given its unaffordability, trastuzumab is not available in South Africa’s public health sector[ii] where more than 80% of the country’s population seek care. Additionally, high co-payments required by medical insurers to access the treatment are simply unaffordable for many who use the private sector.

Despite very limited access, Roche is able to generate significant income from the sale of trastuzumab in the South Africa. In 2015, trastuzumab was the second highest driver of expenditure on a medicine in South Africa’s private sector. During the same year, Roche earned more than US$ 8.9 billion in profits globally.

The excessive income and profits generated by the sale of trastuzumab reflect pharmaceutical companies’ common practice of price hikes in order to maximize their profits – at the expense of patients’ access to the medicines they need.

Recently academics in the UK estimated that a full 12-month course of trastuzumab can be produced and sold for as little as R3,300 (US$245) – a mere fraction of prices charged by Roche in South Africa and elsewhere. This low figure includes a 50% mark-up on the cost of production for profit and is similar to estimates for producing trastuzumab provided confidentially from a competitor company in 2013. Multiple patents granted on trastuzumab combined with the slow market entry and registration of biosimilar[iii] products globally allowed Roche to charge exorbitant prices for the life-saving treatment for far too long.

Recognising the injustice faced by herself and others who are unable to access trastuzumab while Roche reaps massive profits, Tobeka threw herself into advocating for equitable medicine access for all during 2016. In February, she was featured in a short video in which she noted: “if I can get [trastuzumab] treatment, it will give me a chance to see my two sons and my grandson growing”. Even as the likelihood of her being able to access trastuzumab diminished, Tobeka’s determination to ensure other women could access the medicine only grew stronger.

Tobeka went on to lead several demonstrations calling on Roche to drop the price of trastuzumab and gave testimony regarding her inability to access trastuzumab treatment in front of the United Nation’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines .

Finally, less than 2 months before her death, Tobeka led a march calling on the South African government to end delays in reforming South Africa’s patent laws to improve medicine access.

On World Cancer Day 2017, the Fix the Patent Laws coalition will rename its campaign the Tobeka Daki Campaign for Access to Trastuzumab – to remember Tobeka, to recognise her inspirational leadership and to pledge ourselves to continue her struggle for access to affordable medicines.

Starting in February, activists across the world will highlight the excessive price of trastuzumab and Roche’s unconscionable profits as women continue to die as a direct result of their prices. We will demand access for every woman who needs it.

The campaign will call on Roche to drop the price of trastuzumab so that all women living with HER2+ breast cancer who need it can access it; to immediately cease all litigation against biosimilar versions of trastuzumab; to stop abusive patenting practices that needlessly extend their patent monopoly on trastuzumab; and to immediately cease litigation against the Brazilian and Argentinian governments for their use of TRIPS flexibilities in order to decrease the price of the medicine. .

To follow the campaign in South Africa, visit @FixPatentLaw or www.fixthepatentlaws.org, and follow the hashtags: #ForTobeka

Notes

[i]Approximately 1 in 5 women diagnosed with breast cancer are HER2 positive – meaning that the human epidermal growth factor receptor (HER2) is over expressed in the breast cancer tumor. HER2 over expression is associated with more aggressive disease, higher rates of recurrence and higher mortality rates than HER2 negative tumors.

[ii]Except in very limited circumstances. See more at: http://www.fixthepatentlaws.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Cancer-Alliance-motivation-for-the-provision-of-trastuzumab-in-the-public-sector-November-2016-2.pdf

[iii]Follow-on versions of biologic medicines- usually produced by companies other than the originator producing company. As biological medicines are produced from living organisms, biosimilar medicines are not exactly identical to biologic medicines but are comparable in terms of safety and efficacy.

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Global Health Check was created by Anna Marriott and is currently edited by Mohga Kamal-Yanni