This is a map that says a lot. It tracks “Vaccine-Preventable Disease Outbreaks” around the world. Many of the biggest circles, showing outbreaks of common infectious diseases that can be treated by inexpensive and effective vaccines, are in Africa.
The five most prevalent diseases the map shows are measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, and rubella. All of the polio cases are in Africa and Asia.
One glaring disparity the map shows, if you click on the circles, is the number of deaths from these diseases. While measles epidemics have occurred in recent years in France, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, they didn’t cause any deaths. Similar epidemics in Africa caused thousands of deaths.
In France, for example, an epidemic involving 34,000 cases didn’t result in any deaths. In Burkina Faso, an epidemic involving 19,000 cases caused 150 deaths.
Yesterday’s New York Times had an article that described how pharmaceutical companies are dragging their heels on a drug that could save thousands of lives annually. The drug’s problem? It’s cheap.
As the article explained –
[I]ts very inexpensiveness has slowed its entry into American emergency rooms, where it might save the lives of bleeding victims of car crashes, shootings and stabbings — up to 4,000 Americans a year, according to a recent study.
Because there is so little profit in it, the companies that make it do not champion it.
Protesters in several European cities are trying to draw attention to what they say are overly restrictive provisions in the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a trade pact currently being negotiated.
Defenders of the agreement claim that it is needed to protect intellectual property rights. Others argue, however, that it will lead to online censorship and restricted access to generic medicines.
Act Up Paris President Frederic Navarro asserts:
Eighty percent of Africans who have AIDS are treated with generic medicines made in India. If this agreement [ACTA] is signed, they won’t have any access to generic medicines and will die while the pharmaceutical laboratories are making profits on our lives.
The United States and several other countries signed the agreement last October. Although the European Union approved the agreement, many European governments are now reluctant to sign it.
Child gold miners in Mali also face serious health consequences.
A December 2011 Human Rights Watch report revealed that children as young as six in Mali dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore, and carry, crush, and pan ore. Many children also work with mercury, a toxic substance that attacks the central nervous system, to separate the gold from the ore. Mercury is particularly harmful to children.
In Madhya Pradesh, India, a controversy is raging over clinical drug testing, after a government report concluded that a number of patients participated in clinical trials without their knowledge or informed consent.
The husband of one such patient explained: “The doctor told us that the medicines will be given free and that they were going to be launched soon by a foreign company. Not once did he say it was an experiment or a trial. If I knew, would I have taken the risk?”
In 2005, India loosened the guidelines that regulate clinical drug testing. As a result, participation in such trials rose precipitously, as numerous international pharmaceutical companies decided to take advantage of the country’s lower costs.
C.M. Gulhati, editor of the Monthly Index of Medical Specialities journal, summed up the trend in blunt terms: “India is emerging as a hub for drug trials, and Indian patients are like guinea pigs.”
Doctors Without Borders has put together a useful summary of the ten key stories from 2011 on the struggle to obtain essential medicines in developing countries. As they describe, one of the critical faultlines is India, a country that produces “the most quality affordable medicines used in the developing world, but which faces attacks by drug companies and wealthy countries who continue to clamp down on generic production.”
In an April 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health set out an analytic framework for understanding the right to health. His report also underscored the important role human rights play in securing the basic conditions necessary for living with dignity.
The report also notes that “securing a certain level of health-related development is a prerequisite for the overall economic development of a country.”