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UN panel set to release report on access to medicines

By Taddeo Bwambale

Added 8th May 2016 12:05 PM

The panel is co-chaired by Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland

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The panel is co-chaired by Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland

A United Nations (UN) panel of experts is this month expected to release a much-awaited report highlighting the burden of access to essential drugs, especially in low-income countries.

Last year, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon appointed a team of 16 experts with experience in trade, public health, human rights and legal issues associated with access to treatment.

The panel is co-chaired by Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland, and Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana.

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International, former politician and wife of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader, Kizza Besigye, is a member of the UN panel.

Byanyima, whose organization has strong focus on addressing inequalities so as to lift people out of poverty, was a Member of Parliament in Uganda for 11 years.  

She has also served on the African Union Commission as Director of Gender and Development, and at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Also on the panel is Yusuf Hamied, an Indian scientist and non-executive Chairman of Cipla, a generic pharmaceutical manufacturer based in his country.  

Hamied, an advocate of life-saving medicines is credited for offering the world’s first affordable AIDS medicine at the unprecedented cost of $1 per day in 2001.

According to the World Health Organisation, about one-third of people in developing countries are unable to receive or purchase essential medicines on a regular basis.

Activists argue that extensive patent rights granted to pharmaceutical companies prevent developing countries from producing or buying low-cost generic drugs.

Mogae, President of Botswana from 1998 to 2008, is credited for having been one of the first African leaders publicly to undergo an HIV test.

The panel will also examine the burden of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, non-communicable diseases, and the affordability of health technologies.

Its findings will guide country efforts to attain Sustainable Development Goal 3 of promoting the well-being of all people through access to essential vaccines, medicines and diagnostics.

Access to healthcare

There has been mounting concern that extensive patent rights granted to pharmaceutical companies prevent developing countries from producing or buying generic drugs at low cost.

Most research and development in vaccines, medicines and diagnostic tests is undertaken on the basis of financial gain rather with no attention to the needs of the poorest, experts say.

The high cost of healthcare, combined with low funding for health in national budgets forces, often subjects poor patients to high out-of-pocket expenditure for health services.

In Uganda, about 68.8% of patients pay for health services at the point of care, according to the East, Central and Southern Africa Health Community (ECSA), a regional health body.

Uganda’s per capita expenditure on health stands at about $13 (sh43,000) annually, yet WHO recommends at least $40 (sh132,000) under the minimum healthcare package.

On average, Ugandans spend above 10% of their household income on health services including drugs, which experts say could push more people into poverty.

In most low-income countries, rapid population growth, high unemployment and limited coverage of health insurance compound major constraints to access to medicines.

In the East African region, Rwanda has 98% medical insurance coverage, while Kenya covers 35%, Burundi 34%, Tanzania 15%, and Uganda with the least at 1.5%.

Under the proposed health insurance scheme, employed Ugandans will contribute 8% of their monthly earnings to the scheme-4% from the employer and another 4% from the employee.

The health insurance scheme is expected to start with the formal sector where government seeks to generate $100m (sh257b) annually from about 550,000 workers to fill the funding gap.

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