How Big Pharma Prevents The Poor From Accessing Life-Saving Medicines

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A child suffering from Chagas disease, a neglected illness that kills roughly 12,000 people per year.

Diseases that kill 2.6 million poor people per year receive a miniscule fraction of pharmaceutical research money, according to a new report from Doctors Without Borders. The report surveyed all drugs approved for global use between 2001 and 2011, finding that only 3.8 percent of approved drugs were designed to treat so-called “neglected diseases,” defined as diseases where “treatment options are inadequate or don’t exist, and when their drug-market potential is insufficient to readily attract a private sector response.”

The reason that treating these illnesses isn’t a moneymaker for the pharmaceutical industry is that they disproportionately kill poor people, as the wealthy have access to basic sanitation and other preventative measures that make it very unlikely to contract neglected diseases. Moreover, even when treatment for these diseases get developed, they’re often designed in a fashion that makes them too expensive for the very poorest to afford:

[E]ven when there is enough of a profit incentive to drive innovation – for example when diseases affect both developed and developing countries alike – the resulting products are too often priced out of reach. Developing countries are not the only ones to be hit, as ever higher prices for new medical tools strain the healthcare budgets of developed countries as well, posing access barriers to increasing numbers of people. New drugs to treat HIV or cancer can cost hundreds of times more than a person’s average annual income, and the battle for access increasingly has to be waged drug by drug, country by country, company by company.

Government and philanthropic investment is not picking up the slack: though governments provide twice as much money for neglected disease research as private institutions, the total amount of funding is still half of what the World Health Organization expects would be necessary to address these diseases. Cutbacks as a consequence of the global financial crisis are shrinking this already-inadequate funding pool. In May, the United States opposed the creation of a dedicated international fund for combating neglected diseases.

The problem of unequal access to medical treatment extends beyond neglected diseases. African-Americans and the poor are significantly less likely than other Americans to get access to treatment for HIV/AIDS. Likewise, the inability of developing countries to afford and distribute HIV/AIDS drugs costs millions of lives worldwide.