I shall never forget our neighbour Zahia (meaning bright) when I was growing up in Egypt. She was a really bright lady, clever, always smiling and radiating beauty and happiness. Her kids would go to school looking immaculately dressed despite being poor. One day she just disappeared and I later saw her kids in rags wandering around. As a child, I could not comprehend the neighbours’ whisper of a “bad disease” that killed her, but I clearly saw it was so bad that the family had to leave their house and the kids were destitute. Years later I learnt that Zahia had breast cancer that was diagnosed at a late stage and that her family had to sell everything so she could have treatment that was too late to save her life.
Zahia’s tragic death is a result of injustice in an unequal world, where cancer survival rates in much lower in poor countries than in rich countries. Within countries, inequality also means that access to early diagnosis and treatment is beyond the means of low income people like Zahia. She adds to the case fatality rate which is 74.5% in low income countries but 46.3% in high-income countries where access to diagnosis and treatment is much more secure.
Simply put, lack of access to diagnostics leads to late recognition of cancer, after the disease spreads all over the body and become prohibitively expensive or clinically impossible to treat, leading to unnecessary death.
Access to cancer care in developing countries is hindered by a complex web of several factors: lack of awareness and information about cancer prevention and diagnosis; underfunded and challenged health systems that are struggling to cope with communicable diseases; out of pocket payment for services that are unaffordable even for the middle class, much less people in poverty, and dreadfully expensive prices of cancer treatment.
Yet cancer incidence is rising in developing countries. The latest WHO figures show that cancer kills 8.8 million every year, the majority of which are in developing countries. Addressing the rising incidence of cancer cases requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses prevention, diagnosis and treatment, including surgery, radiation and medicines. Prevention requires public health policies that restrict carcinogenics like tobacco and encourage actions for good health such as physical exercise. However, focusing only on prevention makes cancer appear as a personal responsibility and leaves patients to bear the cost of their own treatment according to their means.
Diagnosis and treatment of cancer depend on availability of health services with trained staff that can provide quality services, including surgery and radiation, as well as affordable chemotherapy and medicines. Many governments and donors do not prioritise cancer care as part of financing health care. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) implements a programme of support to countries that are committed to investment in cancer care. More donor actions are needed to support countries in building their capacity to deal with cancer before it becomes an even more serious crisis.
Since Zahia’s death there has been great progress in chemotherapy and medicines that treat breast and other cancers. However, the price of these medicines is escalating to a degree that is beyond the means of the majority of cancer patients worldwide, and even beyond payers (whether through tax or insurance) in rich countries. Such unaffordable high medicine prices have a devastating impact on patients. The tragedy is that these prices need not be so high. A recent study investigated the potential cost of production of a number of key cancer medicines and found that they can be produced and sold at a fraction of the current market price. The cases of docetaxel and letrozole medicines are illustrative of how generic competition is an effective means to make prices more affordable.
Generic production of new medicines is delayed by monopolies due to patent protection. Pharmaceutical companies often succeed in extending their monopoly via multiple follow-on patents (evergreening), thus enabling companies to maintain high prices for longer time.
While pharmaceutical companies can issue voluntary licensing for generic production when they feel it suits them, governments have the right to issue compulsory licenses to override patent monopolies, which enables generic competition and reduces prices. Despite the rhetoric that governments can use this and other tools, rich countries severely object to and punish governments that try to use it. This was the case when India rejected a patent on imatinib for treating chronic myeloid leukaemia. Novartis, the patent holder, took the government of India to court. The US government has been exerting pressure on India to change its intellectual property law, which enabled the country to reject the patent as invalid because it failed to meet India’s standards for innovation.
In recognition of the fact that high prices of new medicines are a global problem, the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on access to medicines made strong recommendations to enhance access to health technologies. We are yet to see the UN system and member states implementing these recommendations.
Inequality in access to cancer treatment is a death sentence for low income people. It is time that world leaders prioritise investment in public health systems and in new models of research that lead to affordable medicines that are accessible to all, in order to fulfil their commitment that no one be left behind.
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