Date: Sept 4, 1998

Publication: The Nation

Section: Politics

Group seeks legislation making drugs affordable to those in need

AN ALLIANCE of non-governmental organisations on health along with the network of people living with HIV/Aids have called on the government to reconsider changing an important provision in the Patent Law, fearing it could put drugs beyond the reach of those in need.

In a statement, the group asked for support for an effort to make essential drugs affordable and accessible to the poor, citing savings of 300 per cent on some medication.

''Apart from HIV/Aids, the issue being raised holds well for people with other long term chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer or diabetes,'' the statement said.

The group stated that the government was now being pressed by Washington to reduce its authority on the compulsory licence of drugs, after it had been urged to stop parallel imports of drugs six years ago.

''To make matters worse, the US is also pressing Thailand to cancel the committee on Pharmaceutical Patents which will allow multinational drug companies to maintain their monopoly on production and marketing of drugs at high prices,'' it said.

Two groups of people directly affected by high drug prices are those that require chemotherapy and those with HIV/AIDS who require treatment for opportunistic infections and/or treatment of HIV/Aids.

Citing cryptococal meningitis, a fungal infection of the brain which affects 15 to 20 per cent of the estimated 900,000 HIV-infected people in Thailand, the group said the patients need continuous treatment to avoid recurrence.

Patients suffer from severe headaches and vomiting. If left untreated, the patient can die in a few days, and if treated too late, he can be left permanently disabled, blind or deaf, the group stated.

The two drugs used to treat the disease are Diflucan produced by Pfizer, a US company, and Bristol Myer-Squibb's Amphotericine. The cost of one year of Diflucan treatment is Bt100,000, a next to impossible amount for average Thai families, according to the group.

''Pfizer holds the patent for Fluconazole, an ingredient in Diflucan, and charge whatever price they wish,'' the group said adding that patients were not able find the drugs elsewhere.

However, the group said that Fluconazole was available in international markets at US$600 per kilogramme and ''it should be possible to buy the drug in bulk, pack it into capsules in Thailand and sell the drug at about Bt7 to Bt8 per 200 milligramme capsule compared to the price of Bt230 currently being charged by Pfizer. The 300 per cent savings is a substantial amount which will really make a difference.''

If Thailand bows to US pressure, Thai pharmaceutical companies will not be able to produce essential drugs in competition and the prices of these patented drugs will remain beyond the reach of most Thais, the group stated.

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