Experts call for renewed urgency to ensure access to affordable medicines in Asia

Innovative multi-sectoral approaches are urgently needed to achieve equitable and sustainable access to lifesaving medicines, diagnostics and vaccines, said experts at a regional consultation from 15-17 March in Bangkok.

More than 75 participants from nine Asian countries attended the three-day meeting at the United Nations Conference Centre, including representatives from government, civil society and development partners. The ‘Regional Expert Consultation on Access to Affordable Medicines, Diagnostics and Vaccines’ was organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV (APN+) and the Asia Pacific Coalition of AIDS Service Organisations (APCASO).

The consultation addressed the key challenges faced by countries in achieving access to affordable medicines, diagnostics and vaccines, which is one of three key pillars of the ‘Regional Framework for Action on HIV and AIDS beyond 2015’. The Framework was endorsed by ESCAP member states in January 2015.

In opening remarks, Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP’s Chief of Regional Policy and Programme Support, highlighted the crucial links between health, development and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

She noted that access to affordable medicines and vaccines is firmly embedded in SDG 3 – “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all” – and it also has direct relevance to other goals, such as SDG 1 on poverty eradication, and SDG 10 on reducing inequality within and between countries.

“The world’s leaders have recognized that progress on SDG 3 – including its targets on universal health coverage, non-communicable diseases, neglected tropical diseases, and ending epidemics of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria – could be jeopardized if access to affordable medicines and vaccines is compromised. Protecting the right to health of vulnerable and marginalized people must be a development priority,” said Ms. Wiesen.

Participants learned about successful experiences, opportunities and challenges of promoting access to medicines and striking a fair balance between economic interests and national development priorities, including the attainment and sustainable financing of universal health coverage and poverty reduction.

“Access to affordable medicines is a matter of life and death for all of us, particularly the most vulnerable in society,” said Shiba Phurailatpam, Regional Coordinator at APN+. “It is a constant struggle to ensure that the rights of people to access affordable lifesaving medicines in developing countries are not traded away. The community of people living with HIV has been at the forefront of this battle for decades now and will continue to work to protect this fundamental right.”

Given the wealth of experience and expertise available in the region, the consultation provided an opportunity for South-South information exchange and learning. Participants highlighted platforms and areas for further regional cooperation, particularly with regard to the means of fostering domestic research and development, innovation and technology transfer. They also emphasized the need for sharing information on prices and procurement of essential medicines and products, and the implementation and use of flexibilities under the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.

“The HIV response has shown how effective partnerships between governments, civil society and private sector led to greater access to affordable medicines,” said Steve Kraus, UNAIDS Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “We must ensure that medicines and diagnostics remain accessible to everybody. This is imperative to reaching the end of the AIDS epidemic by 2030.”

On 17 March, the participants contributed via video conference to a global dialogue held in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines. The High-Level Panel is tasked with reviewing proposals from the public and delivering solutions to increase access to medicines and innovation, and protect human rights and public health interests. Government and civil society participants from Asia shared insights and recommendations to address key challenges for expanding access to affordable medicines.

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