The good news is that much has been achieved in pharmaceuticals in the 25 years since the essential drugs concept was introduced. In 1975 only a dozen or so countries had what would now be considered an essential drugs list or an essential drugs programme. Today, three out of four countries in the world - nearly 160 countries in all - have adopted national essential drugs lists as the basis for public procurement systems, reimbursement schemes, training, public education and other national health activities. And over 100 countries have national drug policies in place or under development. 6 Even more importantly, a growing number of countries are moving from policy to action through coordinated national drug policy implementation plans.
Twenty-five years ago, objective information on the rational use of drugs was extremely limited, especially in developing countries. Medical training about drugs was often based on brand names and little attention given to systematic teaching about rational drug use. Today, nearly 100 governments and numerous national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have developed therapeutic manuals and formularies, providing health professionals with up-to-date, accurate advice on diagnosis and treatment. The use of generic names is the accepted standard for medical training, and the WHO curriculum for good prescribing is being adopted by leading medical universities in countries at all levels of development. 6, 7
Perhaps most importantly, 25 years ago, less than half the world's population had regular access to essential drugs. Today, through a combination of public and private health systems, nearly two-thirds of the world's people are estimated to have access to full and effective treatment with the medicines they need. In absolute terms, the number of people with access to essential drugs grew from roughly 2.1 billion in 1977 to 3.8 billion in 1997.8
These accomplishments illustrate just what can be done when governments, public interest groups, the private sector and international organizations such as WHO combine efforts to improve health.