Research and development system failing to meet health needs of developing countries

MSF challenges ministerial summit on health research to ensure development of new medicines.

"Our patients are sometimes more afraid of dying from the treatment than of dying from the disease," said Virginia Morrison, an MSF nurse working in Angola. "The national protocol for second-stage sleeping sickness in Angola is melarsoprol, a horrible 55-year-old drug which burns the veins and kills one in 20 patients."

Geneva/Mexico City - The current system for health research and development is failing to bring the benefits of medical progress to the poor, according to the medical humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on the opening day of the Ministerial Summit on Health Research, "Bridging the Know-Do Divide to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals," in Mexico City.

"Today's research and development (R&D) system fails the poor in two ways: new drugs that come onto the market are too expensive, and the health needs of people in developing countries are being ignored," says Ellen 't Hoen, policy advocacy director for MSF's Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.

"For this Summit to be a success, it needs to define policies to ensure the development of new and adapted medicines, diagnostics, and vaccines for neglected diseases."

Medicine research and development is almost exclusively confined to the private sector, driven by prospects for profitable returns rather than public health needs. As a result, only one percent of medicines developed in the last 25 years were for tropical diseases.*

These diseases kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, mainly in the developing world.

"Our patients are sometimes more afraid of dying from the treatment than of dying from the disease," said Virginia Morrison, an MSF nurse working in Angola. "The national protocol for second-stage sleeping sickness in Angola is melarsoprol, a horrible 55-year-old drug which burns the veins and kills one in 20 patients.

"The only current alternative is eflornithine, which requires four infusions a day for 14 days and is not adapted to resource-poor settings. Even though there is a lot of basic research into the disease, the results are not being translated into new, effective, safe, and easy-to-use drugs and diagnostics."

Another example is Chagas disease, a parasitic disease that causes irreparable damage to internal organs and kills 50,000 people each year, mainly in poor rural communities in Latin America. "Chagas patients are of no interest to pharmaceutical companies; many people die without ever being diagnosed. We desperately need new drugs to treat people with Chagas," says Silvia Moriana, coordinator of MSF's program in Bolivia.

Global spending on health research has increased from $US30 billion in 1986 to $US105.9 billion today. Yet 90% of this money is still spent on the health problems of less than 10% of the world's population.**

"Governments need to take responsibility for health R&D policy," says Ellen 't Hoen. "We've heard promises, but we see no action."

Briefing document

Footnotes:

* Trouiller P, Olliaro P, Torreele E, Orbinski J, Laing R, Ford N. Drug development for neglected diseases: a deficient market and a public-health policy failure. Lancet 22 June 2002 359;9324: 2188-2194.

** Global Forum for Health Research, Monitoring financial flows for health research, November 2004. www.globalforumhealth.org