Human Rights, Corporate Responsibility and Access to Medicines

We are in the midst of observing the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the Declaration states that, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

udhrpage-sm.jpgAs we have noted before, The UN has appointed a Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. One of the issues being pursued is that of access to medicines, including medicines for malaria, and to that end guidelines are being developed for pharmaceutical companies.

In an introductory note the draft guidelines observe that, “Almost 2 billion people lack access to essential medicines. Improving access to existing medicines could save 10 million lives each year, 4 million of them in Africa and South-East Asia. Access to medicines is characterised by profound global inequity. 15% of the world’s population consumes over 90% of the world’s pharmaceuticals.”

The suggested guidance encourages pharmaceutical companies to address human rights in their mission statements and actually act on those statements as part of corporate responsibility. One particular concern is that companies refrain from discouraging or working against country policies that are working to improve access to medicines by citizens. What comes to mind of course is efforts by countries to buy or produce generic HIV or malaria medicines in order to ensure the greatest coverage of affected people. Other issues addressed in the draft include ethics, quality, technology transfer and pricing.

What would be most helpful in the malaria arena is if more alternative and generic medicines could become available and those made available at the cheapest possible prices. For example, one possible unintended consequence of WHO’s pre-qualification process seems to be putting all our eggs in the one basket of artemether-lumefantrine, which does not make sense epidemiologically or economically. International and national based pharmaceutical companies have a role to play in rolling back malaria. They need to do this in a responsible manner that saves the most lives.

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