Access to essential medicines for sexual and reproductive health care: the role of the pharmaceutical industry and international regulation

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The range of medicines and technologies that are essential for sexual and reproductive health care is well established, but access to them is far from universally assured, particularly in less developed countries. This paper shows how the pharmaceutical industry plays a major role in the lack of access to essential medicines for sexual and reproductive health care, by a) investing in products for profit-making reasons despite their negative health impact (e.g. hormone replacement therapy), b) marketing new essential medicines at prices beyond the reach of countries that most need them (e.g. HPV vaccines), and c) failing to invest in the development of new products (e.g. microbicides and medical abortion pills). Small companies, some of them non-profit-making, struggle to fill some of that demand (e.g. for female condoms). International patent protection contributes to high prices of medicines, and while international agreements such as compulsory licensing under TRIPS and the Medicines Patent Pool allow for mechanisms to enable poorer countries to get access to essential medicines, the obstacles created by "big pharma" are daunting. All these barriers have fostered a market in sub-standard medicines (e.g. fake medical abortion pills sold over the internet). An agenda driven by sexual and reproductive health needs, based on the right to health, must focus on universal access to essential medicines at prices developing countries can afford. We call for greater public investment in essential medicines, expanded production of affordable generic drugs, and the development of broad strategic plans, that include affordable medicines and technologies, for addressing identified public health problems, such as cervical cancer.

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doi: 10.1016/S0968-8080(11)38573-4.
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