World Health Assembly 2000: drug debates focus on HIV/AIDS
A comprehensive resolution on HIV/AIDS was among the highlights of the World Health Assembly, held in Geneva in May 2000.
Ninety-five percent of the 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS are in developing countries. And it was these countries’ representatives who successfully campaigned for WHO to increase its role in advising on the best treatment options, and how to overcome drug pricing and access problems. During discussions on the Revised Drug Strategy delegates also stressed the need for WHO to support broader approaches to drug financing, and to address the growing dangers of unregulated sale of medicines on the Internet and counterfeit drugs.
Among its provisions resolution WHA53.14 on confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic requests the Director-General to: support the implementation of drug price monitoring systems in Member States, to promote equitable access to care, including essential drugs; promote rational use of drugs by strengthening Member States’ capacity to implement drug monitoring systems; and continue to develop methods and support for monitoring the pharmaceutical and public health implications of trade agreements. Numerous delegates stressed the need for WHO to retain its independent voice when advising countries on the complex subject of health-related aspects of trade.
At one of the many side meetings during the Assembly, public health advocates from Health Action International, Médecins Sans Frontières and Consumer Project on Technology held a joint briefing for Member States on improving access to essential drugs. And they added their voices to support for WHO’s role in providing global pricing information on quality medicines for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Tackling counterfeit drugs
A well-attended technical briefing on drug quality at the Assembly focused on counterfeits. The presence of senior health officials, and representatives from Interpol, the pharmaceutical industry and NGOs reflected the multi-faceted nature of the problem. The audience was told of highly sophisticated operations in which criminals take advantage of cross-border loopholes. Supplies, production, shipping re-labelling, financing and distribution of these drugs are often handled in different countries.
The meeting called for closer cooperation between law-enforcing agencies, legislative bodies and the pharmaceutical industry. Saying that there was “an urgent need for action”, Dr Yasuhiro Suzuki, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals Cluster, referred to the “deadly combination of demand for cheap drugs and fat profit margins” that makes counterfeiting drugs so attractive to criminals and such a threat to society.
Bridging the digital divide
Only a small fraction of global health research expenditure goes to research into diseases and health issues that affect the poor, such as malaria, killer childhood diseases and nutrition. One step towards changing this is to facilitate research in the countries that have first-hand experience of these problems. Now WHO and the Open Society Institute (part of the Soros Foundation network) have teamed up with information providers ISIO and Silver Platter, and other partners to do just that. They will provide medical and health research institutions in Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe with Internet access to quality scientific information from around the world.
The project’s first year pilot phase will enable scientists at leading research institutions in Armenia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Mongolia, Uganda, Tanzania and Uzbekistan to access information in digital format. In this way integration of the world scientific community through electronic communication will advance. WHO will be among those negotiating with service providers in the eight initial countries to provide high-speed connection to the Internet. Research staff in the countries will receive comprehensive training to ensure maximum benefit from the project. It is anticipated that by the end of its second year between 30 and 40 countries will have joined the project, which is part of the wider United Nations programme “Health InterNetwork”. This aims to improve public health world wide by facilitating the flow of health information using Internet technologies.