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MSF or Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971 in Paris by a group of journalists and doctors in the wake of war and famine in Biafra, Nigeria. Their aim was to establish an independent organization that focused on delivering emergency medicine aid quickly, effectively, and impartially. Three hundred volunteers made up the organization when it was founded. It is currently a worldwide movement of about 65,000 people.
MSF provides medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare. Their teams are made up of tens of thousands of health professionals and administrative staff, bound together by a common charter. Their actions are guided by medical ethics, and the principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality. MSF is a non-profit, self-governed, member-based organization.
MSF is presently working in 72 countries. The funding comes from donations, 82% of which is spent on mission causes, 13% on raising awareness and inviting more donations, and 5% is spent on management and general administration.
For the last twelve years, MSF has been running a ‘Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines’. This is how MSF describes the campaign.[Quote] In the field, MSF doctors are constantly frustrated by the lack of adequate medical tools to give quality care to the patients we treat. In response, Médecins Sans Frontierès set up MSF Access Campaign in 1999 to improve access to existing medical tools (medicines, diagnostics, vaccines) and to stimulate the development of urgently needed better tools for people in countries where MSF works.
From the start, we faced two major challenges – the high cost of existing medicines and the absence of treatments for many of the diseases affecting our patients. Our response has been on the one hand to challenge the high costs of existing drugs or the outdated treatment policies. On the other hand, we have worked to stimulate research into new medicines for neglected diseases such as tuberculosis, sleeping sickness and malaria. [Unquote]
In this and the next few posts, I would like to write about MSF activities and the related areas, particularly the neglected areas in research about diseases of the poor. As an opener, I would say that most new research is currently focused on cancer, genetic disorders, targeted therapies etc. The new research is costly and so are the new medicines. Only people living in the highly developed countries where insurance-based or government sponsored healthcare is available shall take advantage of new research. These privileged people are small in numbers. There is a large majority living in developing, underdeveloped, underprivileged societies who suffer from and die from malaria, dengue, sleeping sickness and tuberculosis. Even leprosy is reported quite often, mainly from our northern areas and patients coming from Afghanistan.
Research for new drugs is not aimed towards the needs and diseases of people in poor countries. It is because the drugs and diagnostic tools are developed based on market potential, not based on patient needs. Almost entire drug research activity is taken up by the Pharma companies. Even the initial research carried out at universities is then taken up by Pharma companies for further development and commercialization. Pharma companies are for-profit, and they must show to their shareholders that their money is spent on projects which would yield maximum return. This is the reason why that only 1% of the drugs which were brought on to market during the last 30 years were developed for poor countries’ diseases such as tropical diseases or tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is still being treated with 40-50 years old drugs, while MDR TB – Multidrug resistant tuberculosis is raging. The old drugs for most such diseases have lost efficacy but are still being used compulsively because nothing else is available.
Pharma companies have two major interests in new drug development. One, focus on maximizing income by focusing on maximum revenue generating areas; and two, getting patent on new drugs which may last up to 30 years, thereby blocking the way for development of cheaper, more accessible alternatives.
To be Continued……
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