Poverty-related and neglected diseases (PRNDs) disproportionately affect the world's poorest populations. Better incentives are needed for pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs, health campaigners say.
Europe plays a critical role in developing new PRND products that are saving millions of lives and millions of euros in the world's poorest countries. EU funding, whether coming from the European Commission or the 28 EU member states, has increased in recent years and has been essential to bringing new products to market.
Still, more than one billion people suffer from neglected diseases, and every year there are around 230 million new cases of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria infections. These diseases primarily affect low- and middle income countries.
Speaking at a Brussels debate, British liberal MEP Fiona Hall said there was a limited market and incentives for the pharmaceutical sector to invest in research and innovation.
"In some countries there might be no electricity to preserve a drug or appropriate equipment to make a diagnosis," Hall told a debate on patient needs in global health, organised by the pharmaceutical industry and health NGOs in Brussels on Monday (10 March).
"The lack of tools for diagnosis and treatment for PRNDs keep developing countries in a cycle of poverty because of low productivity and high health costs," Hall said in a video message.
Joshua Wamboga Magawa from the AIDS Support Organisation, a health NGO, said he has witnessed improvements in Africa when it comes to PRNDs. For example, in the past a person could wait for a month to get an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Now due to a lot of struggles and efforts, it will take 5 minutes to get a diagnosis at the health centre in many villages.
"But the question is, will innovation sustain? What is in the pipeline to continue to improve the lives of these patients? When do we begin trading profits for access? That's the biggest challenge," Magawa said.
Investing in poverty diseases
Benedict Blayney from the French pharma firm Sanofi, said that among the 17 so-called neglected tropical diseases, one of them is close to eradication while the remaining 16 all have drugs and vaccines available for treatment, except one.
"For those 15 diseases, we know that they are mainly living in remote areas that are poor, and the governments who look after them are also poor. So what has the industry done? Well, we have provided free treatment for 11 out of these 15 diseases for many years."
Kevin McCarthy, from the European Commission's development directorate (DG Devco), said the Commission has dedicated a large part of the EU's health and research budget to combating and tackling of the poverty-related diseases, especially the "big three" – HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
But he said the mandate will be broadened and that neglected diseases will soon be taken up.
Calling for patient empowerment
Isabela Ribeiro from DNDi, a non-profit product development partnership, mentioned that when it comes to PRNDs, patient needs have to be addressed and patients have to be involved at all stages.
"For some drugs, one out of five patients dies from the side effects. This is one of the reasons why we need to be looking at how we can actually improve out current treatments and how we can think long term in terms of new treatment strategies. We need to be working on new solutions in the meanwhile," she said.
Ribeiro's views were backed by Nittita Prasopa-Plaizier, from the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Patients for Patient Safety Programme.
"We think it's a starting point to engage patients. We need to talk to them to know what they want and need. In this area, progress has been made. But there's still a lot to be done when it comes to policy making, particularly in low- and middle income countries."