The top decision-making body of the World Health Organization begins its annual meeting Monday in Geneva. Humanitarian groups like Doctors Without Borders are appealing to the organization to encourage more research and development into new drugs to fight disease, especially in the developing world.
Doctors Without Borders says it has come to the World Health Organization assembly to raise awareness of an important problem. The group says one-third of the world's people lack access to essential drugs and those who live in Africa and Asia are most affected.
The group argues that although drug prices in some places have decreased, they still have not come down far enough for most people in the developing world to be able to afford them. Doctors Without Borders is calling on the World Health Organization to take a more active role in making antibiotics and AIDS medicines more affordable.
A spokeswoman for the organization, Ellen 't Hoen, says it is not only pressing for greater access to life-savings drugs in developing countries, but is calling for an increase in research into new drugs to replace standard medical treatments that are no longer effective. "One issue is really lacking at this assembly and that is the need for research and development into new medicines," she said. "WHO tends to focus very much on increasing the availability of existing tools and somewhat ignores the fact than many of the tools are no longer effective. For example, we are faced with an enormous problem of resistance to many of the medicines our doctors in the field are using."
Doctors Without Borders is not the only group calling on the assembly to devote more attention to the people of the developing world. Dr. Gilbert Buckle of the Catholic Drug Center in Ghana says the vast majority of medical research is devoted to curing health problems of the developed world, to the neglect of people in Africa and other regions that are far more in need. "Seventy to 80 percent of the research funds are in the developed world where you only have 10 to 15 percent of the problem," he said. "And these are some of the inequities that we think a body like the World Health Organization should be able to help at least to sensitize our leaders and the other politicians here not to play politics and not to play economics with health."
Both humanitarian groups acknowledge that the World Health Organization is taking steps to focus attention on the medical needs of the developing world, but they say much more still needs to be done to get affordable drugs to those who need them most.