When the AIDS virus became common a disease that everyone was familiar with, pharmaceutical companies were working furiously to find the right drug. While the first ones seemed promising, they didn’t quite tackle the problem quite as well. More work was done, and the right combination of drugs was found to not only stop the deaths that had once seemed inevitable, but also were able to prevent it.
Everyone was excited by how quickly the advances came, and a victory was declared. The truth was, it was only a victory for those who could afford it. That didn’t include those in developing countries, where even basic health care is out of reach, physically and financially. Finally, through the action of several AIDS activist groups, everyone was given access to the medicine and care that they needed. It didn’t come right away. It was only after drug companies were pressured to lower the prices of the drugs, that access became a reality.
The same cannot be said for diseases that many have assumed has been eliminated, or for ones we may never have heard of. These are called neglected diseases. They are best described as
“… conditions that inflict severe health burdens on the world’s poorest people. Many of these conditions are infectious diseases that are most prevalent in tropical climates, particularly in areas with unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, substandard housing and little or no access to health care.”
They are neglected because they are diseases we generally don’t contract because we have safe drinking water, good sanitation, good housing, and good access to health care in comparison to those in countries where these disease are prevalent. While part of the problem of treating these problems is the conditions that treat them, access to the medicines that could treat them remains part of the problem. Like AIDS, cost is out of reach to the world’s poorest people.
Part of the problem is that many of the drugs that had been used in the past simply don’t work anymore. More money has been pumped into drug development. It’s not like the sheer volume of need isn’t there. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1 billion people suffer from one or more neglected diseases.
As a result, more money has been poured into developing new drugs and therapies. While diseases like sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis have been helped, there remains a litany of diseases that haven’t seen the same success. Of the 850 new drug therapies and vaccines that were developed between 2000 and 2011, only 37 were for neglected diseases. Although small, that is an increase from the development seen from 1975 to 1999. A total of 1,393 drugs were developed for all diseases, and only 16 were for neglected diseases.
It seems that even before the problem of affordability is discussed, it seems there’s a gaping whole in the process. There’s a lot of money given to pharmaceutical companies to develop and research on treatments, but they simply linger in the pipeline, and never make it to the next step. Companies are not putting forth the dollars for product development and marketing of the drugs. Government assistance has waned due to financial constraints. The result is that valuable treatments never make it to those who need them most.
The solution it seems is to take a different approach. The director for Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative suggests this:
“There have been advances, but for many diseases we have yet to see the kind of ‘game-changers’ that are truly needed,” said Dr. Bernard Pécoul, Executive Director of DNDi. “Product development partnerships and ad hoc R&D initiatives cannot be ‘the’ solution to the systemic lack of innovation. We must make patient needs the driving force for R&D. This is the only way to build on the successes we have seen in the past ten years and overcome the fatal imbalance that still exists between drug R&D and global health needs. Governments must put in place a R&D framework to sustainably coordinate, finance, and stimulate medical innovation for new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for the people who need them most.”
As would make sense, the process used to develop and sell drugs does not work the same way in richer companies as compared to those in the poorer countries. Governments and drug companies must realize that in order for there to be development and improvement, a more patient-focused approach is the way to go. But that is perhaps the change that should happen for all drugs. Perhaps demands by consumers everywhere will result in positive improvement so everyone, no matter where they live or what they can afford, will get the health care they need.