Access to basic medicines can mean the difference between life and death, and is a critical link in realizing the Right to Health. The UN Working Group on Access to Essential Medicines opened its report on Essential Medicines with the assertion that “The lack of access to life-saving and health-supporting medicines for an estimate 2 billion poor people stands as a direct contradiction to the fundamental principle of health as a human right.”

Join PHR in advocating for better access to essential medicines in resource-poor settings through UNITAID’s new Medicine Patent Pool. Our new National Action Toolkit offers analysis, resources to educate your community, and easy advocacy projects. This week of action spans from today – World AIDS Day (December 1) – to International Human Rights Day (December 10).

As Stephen Marks points out in Access to Essential Medicines as a Component of the Right to Health in Health: A Human Rights Perspective, there are many obstacles to making essential medicines available in poor countries: affordable prices; government commitment and policy; adequate, sustainable, and equitable public sector financing; generic substitution; consumer information; efficient distribution; control of taxes; and careful selection and monitoring.  These structural gaps are addressed by the WHO Medicines Strategy, but have proven to be nearly intractable in many low-income countries, with some notable and inspiring exceptions.

Some countries have attempted to overcome the first gap, affordable prices, by negotiating lower prices or substituting patented drugs with ones obtained through their own production or parallel importation. The pharmaceutical industry challenges the idea that patents cause a lack of access (in part, because not all of the 319 products on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines are patentable). Nevertheless, patents to protect investment in research and development are linked to the high price of certain drugs, notably antiretrovirals (ARVs) to manage HIV/AIDS.

As Lisa Foman asserts in ‘Rights’ and Wrongs: What Utility for the Right to Health in Reforming Trade Rules on Medicines, public pressure, legislative advocacy, and legal accountability are more likely to provoke corporate innovation for diseases affecting poor countries than commercial reasons. In other words: the profit motive does not adequately produce public goods like medicines.

So, this year, we suggest you put these human rights strategies to work. This December, the PHR NSP National Action asks you to educate your community about this human rights issue, and ask drug companies to participate in the UNITAID Medicine Patent Pool.

The prohibitive cost of providing needed drugs impedes access. Join the PHR National Student Program in demanding universal access to essential medicines.

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