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Getting The Best Prices For Medicines - 2003-05-20

The World Health Organization and Health Action International have released a new manual aimed at reducing the cost of drugs. The manual – called Medicine Prices – can be used by governments, non-governmental organizations and consumer groups.

The new publication explains the different factors that can drive up drug prices, such as taxes, production costs, retail mark-ups and tariffs. For example, in Brazil, taxes and other charges are said to “typically add over 40 percent to factory prices.”

Dr. Jonathan Quick is director of essential drugs and medicines policy at the W-H-O.

He says, "The price of medicines matter a lot to people, especially poor households. Just for example, a simple treatment for pneumonia in Europe may be worth a few hours of wages. And it’s all paid by insurance. In Africa, a simple treatment for pneumonia may be equivalent to three months wages and nobody’s paying the bills."

The new manual educates health officials and consumers on why there’s such a difference in price.

He says, "Ultimately, what it’s meant to do is to help consumer groups see what’s causing the prices – how the levels vary compared to other countries – and work toward better prices across the board. It’s not meant to be a shopping guide for individual products, but a way of empowering consumer groups and health care providers to get the best possible prices for all the medicines in their country."

Dr. Quick says the Medicine Prices manual can help look for ways of cutting costs and getting the best deal.

That’s important, he says, because the high cost of medicines in developing countries contributes to poverty.

He says, "First of all, in a recent survey we did in Tanzania with consumers and the Ministry of Health there, if we look at poor households only 40 percent got all the medicines that they were prescribed. A third of them didn’t get any of the medicines that they were prescribed because they couldn’t afford it. If you ask them how did you pay for the medicine, then a certain share will say they had the money. But depending on the country and the season and all, a considerable share will borrow the money and in some cases have to sell the cow or sell something that is of considerable economic value for the household."

Research shows, for example, that the price of a common drug to treat high blood pressure is six times higher in South Africa than in Brazil. Prices for the same drug were somewhere in between in Ghana and the Philippines.

Dr. Quick says such price discrepancies fuel the need for the Medicine Prices manual.

He says, "Because of the great concern about access to medicines and medicine prices, we expect that it will become it’ll become a standard part of consumer groups in countries throughout the world."

The manual was field tested for two years in nine countries, including Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa.