December 2, 2016

Drug companies test out new strategies for improving access in poor countries

This post originally appeared on Humanosphere.

When Harald Nusser first walked into the waiting room of the hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and saw so many people suffering in the late stages of cancer, without even basic palliative care, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Some of them had so much pain, they were hitting their heads against the walls, to balance the pain they had inside with a different type of pain,” Nusser said.

A physician who works for one of the world’s biggest drug companies, he was especially affected by the women he saw suffering from breast cancer: “It was absolutely breath-taking to look at those women and realize that 99 percent of them would be dead in a year.”

For decades, the global health community has been focused mostly on communicable diseases like AIDS and malaria. Many like Nusser say the changing disease burdens of lower-income countries require more attention to noncommunicable diseases like cancer. Yet this isn’t happening, and most health systems in poor countries are not equipped to meet the need.

“When I saw this for the first time, I said to myself, you have to do something to change this,” Nusser said. That was in 2013 and, at Novartis, he is today doing something to try to change the situation.

About 61,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year in Ethiopia, according to the World Health Organization, but few of them are treated. There are only eight oncologists in the entire country and the Black Lion Hospital, where Nusser had his epiphany, is Ethiopia’s only cancer-referral hospital. This dire situation is hardly unique, and the same horrible scenes play out every day in many other poor communities.

The cost of drugs is a barrier to the poor in the developing world, although it may not be the biggest access problem in countries like Ethiopia that lack much capacity to deliver medicines at any price. The drug industry, Big Pharma especially, has taken a lot of hits lately in the public arena for high drug prices, even in the rich world.

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