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So near and yet so far: Life-saving Medicines are Out of Reach for many

Medicines are critical to the fight against cancer. Having access to the right medicine at the right time can literally make the difference between life and death.

Over the years medical science has given us many valuable medicines in the fight against cancer. Their names are not as well-known as aspirin or penicillin, having complex and unpronouncable names such as LenalidomideTrastuzumab and Octreotide, but to cancer patients they are as valuable as gold. So having access to these drugs, and being able to afford them, is critical to every patient.

Nevertheless we find that many of these life-saving drugs are not available in South Africa, or they may only be available in the private sector. And even if they are available they may be so expensive that only the rich or those with substantial insurance can afford them.   For those who cannot access these drugs we have no answers.

The reasons why they are so expensive, and why they may not be available, are complex, and solutions are not easy to find. This is the purpose of the Access to Medicine (A2M) Campaign.

About the Access to Medicine (A2M) Campaign

In 2017 the Cancer Alliance and Fix The Patent Laws jointly published a study of 24 life-saving cancer medicines. The research showed that only seven of these 24 medicines are available in the public sector – where 84% of South Africans access medical treatment. Private sector patients have access to 21 of these drugs. In spite of 10 of the medicines being on the WHO essential medicines list, only four of them are deemed essential in South Africa. Click here to download the full study.

Of the 24 medicines, 15 are available in India for less than half of the price offered to the South African private sector. In the most extreme case, a year’s supply of lenalidomide is priced at R882,000 in South Africa and less than R32,000 in India. Ten of the medicines that are not available in the South African public sector are available in India for less than half the price offered to the South African private sector.

On 30th January 2018 the Cancer Alliance announced the start of a concerted two year campaign to focus on eight of these medicines, to change the path of cancer treatment in our country.

Fix the Patent Laws is a campaign co-founded by SECTION27, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in 2011. Since then, the coalition has grown to include 38 other organisations fighting together to push South Africa to amend its patent laws to prioritise public health. You can follow posts by Fix the Patent Laws at this address: www.fixthepatentlaws.org.

Eight medicines chosen for this campaign

Eight medicines have been chosen: These are considered to be priority medicines for cancer at this time, and address the most prevalent cancers and burden of disease in South Africa. Listed together with the cancers they are commonly used to treat they are:

  1. Breast cancer – Trastuzumab
  2. Prostate cancer – Abiraterone acetate
  3. Multiple Myeloma – Lenalidomide
  4. Non-Small Cell Lung cancer – Erlotinib
  5. Lymphoma – Bendamustine
  6. B-cell Lymphoma – Rituximab
  7. Melanoma – Ipilimumab
  8. Treatment of secretory neuroendocrine tumours – Octreotide

Download more information on the list of medicines here.