Health: Why Access To Drugs Is Vital In The Fight Against Cancer

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Cancer is one of the top killers of our time.  The World Health Organization cites the disease as the second largest killer globally with a prediction that cases will increase by 70% in the next two decades. In Kenya, it is so prevalent that it is ranked the third biggest killer with the most occurring cancers being breast and cervical cancer for women, and prostate and oesophagal cancer for men.

The high number of reported cases (up to 39000 a year according to the Kenya Cancer Network) is worrisome. This is especially because the types of cancer most prevalent in Kenya are the ones which have the best prognosis in developed countries. Breast cancer for example, wherein the United States there’s a 90% chance of a five-year survival rate, in Kenya that percentage gets cut in half.

The fight against this scourge is a lot similar to the struggle faced a decade ago dealing with HIV/AIDS and the similarities do not end just at the prevalence. During the early 2000’s it was clear that the number of infected people who could not access anti-retroviral therapy drugs was the main cause of the deaths. Much as HIV infection was deadly in the beginning, the availability of drugs made it less of a death sentence. Several public-private partnership deals had to be struck to greatly subsidize the costs to the extent that the ARVs were offered for free at government hospitals, significantly improving the lives of those living with HIV, and drastically reducing the number of deaths.

It is in this same vein that the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) announced a collaboration with top pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, New York and Cipla, Mumbai to increase access to life-saving cancer medication in sub-Saharan Africa. The agreement which was negotiated by CHAI with funding from ACS will see expansion of funding to cancer-related programs in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.

The plan is for each respective government to use ChemoQuant, software developed by IBM, to quantify their cancer medicine needs. This information then will be used to plan budget and procurement. The partnership will ensure the provision of sixteen essential medications, including chemotherapies at competitive prices. These drugs include Carboplatin, Cisplatin, Docetaxel, Anastrazole and Bleomycin which should effectively result in cost cutting for government expenditure and even improve the range of drugs available. The cutting off of middlemen as well as quality assurance is expected to reduce the number of counterfeit drugs in the region.

Cancer treatment takes many forms: surgery, radiation, immunotherapy, stem cell transplant, target therapy, and precision treatment. Last year the government reportedly signed a deal with Novartis, a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company, to reduce the cost of drugs. The deal that was to bring drug costs to under a dollar fell through due to delayed protocol. The current average costs for medication in a month could go up to fifty thousand shillings, putting healthcare above the reach of the average citizen.

The agreement between ACS and CHAI brings on board a network of 32 top oncologists from 11 African countries who form the African Cancer Coalition. Their expertise, supported by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of American cancer hospitals could see more use of precision treatment as a result of research into genes in African cancer patients, and how they affect the growth of cancerous cells.

The Kenyan cancer context stands to benefit a great deal from this agreement. As much the enacted 2012 Cancer Act served to raise government awareness and spurred more discussion on how to effectively create more policies for the benefit of cancer patients, its effects have hardly been felt especially with regard to the taxation of cancer medication.

Similarly, as government spending in the country is mostly taken up by the public wage bill, this foreign aid investment in cancer, which up to this year has received less funding as compared to malaria, will ease the pressure on the government without burdening taxpayers.

Perhaps in a few years, cancer will become less of a crisis than it is now. Read more on the politics of cancer in Kenya

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