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WHO says ground breaking treatments for hepatitis C, drug-resistant TB, cancer available

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By Becky John

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday, included some ground-breaking new treatments for hepatitis C, a variety of cancers including breast cancer and leukaemia and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB). A statement by the world health body said these were contained in the new edition of WHO’s Model List of Essential Medicines which was published on Friday.

According to it, the move opens the way to improve access to innovative medicines that show clear clinical benefits and could have enormous public health impact globally.

WHO’s Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, said, “When new effective medicines emerge to safely treat serious and widespread diseases, it is vital to ensure everyone who needs them can obtain them.

“Placing them on the WHO essential medicines list is a first step in that direction,’’ the statement quoted her as saying.

The statement explained that governments and institutions around the world used the WHO list to guide the development of their own essential medicines lists. The list is updated every two years by an expert committee, made up of recognized specialists from academia, research and the medical and pharmaceutical professions. This year, the Committee underscored the urgent need to take action to promote equitable access and use of several new highly effective medicines.

The statement however noted that some of new drugs are currently too costly even for high-income countries. It stated that hepatitis C affected about 150 million people globally, and it killed approximately half a million people each year, when chronic infection developed into liver cirrhosis or liver cancer.

According to it, the disease is present in high- and lower-income countries alike, with higher concentrations in several middle- and low-income countries. It said, “until recently, treatment for the disease presented minimal therapeutic benefits and serious side effects.

“Five new medicines, direct acting oral antivirals, have recently come on the market transforming chronic hepatitis C from a barely manageable to a curable condition.

“The new medicines have few side effects and high tolerance in patients, and all five products, including sofosbuvir and daclatasvir, were included in the list.

“But high prices currently make them unaffordable and thus inaccessible to most people who need them.’’

Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, said “treatments for hepatitis C are evolving rapidly, with new, highly effective, safe medicines and many in the pipeline.

“While some efforts have been made to reduce their price for low-income countries, without uniform strategies to make these medicines more affordable globally, the potential for public health gains will be reduced considerably.

“It is important to understand that the Essential Medicines List is the starting block and not the finishing line.

“its purpose is to provide guidance for the prioritisation of medicines from a clinical and public health perspective.

“The hard work begins with efforts to ensure that those medicines are actually available to patients,’’ Kieny said.

Dr Kees De Joncheere, WHO Director of Essential Medicines, said that some of these medicines produced relevant survival benefits for cancers with high incidence, such as trastuzumab for breast cancer. According to Joncheere, other treatment regimens for rare cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, which can cure up to 90 per cent of patients, were added to set a global standard.” Joncheere said the Essential Medicines List included medicines on the basis of safety and efficacy evidence and not on the basis of approved indications within national jurisdictions or availability of licensed alternatives.

The world health body said that TB remained one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases; with about nine million people falling ill with TB and 1.5 million dying from the disease in 2013. Over 95 per cent of TB deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries.

After about 45 years of scarce innovation for TB medicines, five new products were included in the EML; four of these, including bedaquiline and delamanid, target multi-drug-resistant TB.

The body also said that cancers figure were among the leading causes of illness and death worldwide, with approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer-related deaths in 2012. The number of new cases was expected to rise by about 70 per cent over the next two decades.

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