Africa: UN Calls for Extension of Agreement to Provide Affordable Life-Saving Drugs for the Poor

Two United Nations agencies today called for the renewal of an agreement that allows the world's poorest countries to access life-saving drugs at costs they can afford, stressing that failing to do so would jeopardize crucial treatment for HIV/AIDS and other diseases for those who need it the most.

"Access to affordable HIV treatment and other essential medicines is vital if least developed countries are to achieve the health-related and other Millennium Development Goals," Administrator of the UN Development Programme Helen Clark said, referring to the eight anti-poverty targets that include halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal access for treatment of this disease to all those who need it by 2015.

In a brief, UNDP and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) urged members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to consider the special needs and requirement of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and extend their transition period to comply with the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) next week.

Established in 1995, the TRIPS agreement sets minimum standards for various forms of intellectual property regulation at a global scale, including medical drugs. However, patent protection is a factor that drives up drug costs, making many essential treatments unaffordable for LDCs.

"An extension would allow the world's poorest nations to ensure sustained access to medicines, build up viable technology bases, and manufacture or import the medicines they need," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.

The 49 UN-designated LDCs are home to some of the world's most vulnerable people and bear considerable health burdens. In 2011, some 9.7 million of the 34 million people living with HIV worldwide were in these countries. Of that number, 4.6 million were eligible for antiretroviral treatment, in accordance with the 2010 World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, but only 2.5 million were receiving it.

LDCs also face a disproportionately high burden in non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. Data from low-income countries suggest cancer will increase by 82 per cent in the next two decades, compared with 40 per cent in high-income countries that have widespread access to vaccines and medications.

To address this issue, WTO members had granted LDCs a 10-year transition phase to fully comply with TRIPS. The second extension of that deadline is set to expire on 31 July. A proposal to the TRIPS Council, submitted on behalf of LDCs, seeks a further extension so long as a country remains an LDC. The TRIPS Council in Geneva is set to discuss the proposal next week in Geneva.

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