The cost of health
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The burgeoning cost of medicines has become a major problem in recent years, particularly in developing countries.
The dilemmas faced by Western healthcare systems pale into insignificance in comparison with the life or death situations arising on a daily basis around the world.
Recent estimates put the number of people without basic healthcare at two billion and the number dying every year from preventable disease at 11 billion.
World Health Organisation (WTO) figures show that pneumonia kills more people than any other disease, taking 3.5 million lives a year. AIDS claims a further three million, and two million die from tuberculosis. Another million are struck down by malaria -- most of them in Africa.
WTO rules on drug patents mean that competition cannot drive prices down until the patent expires after 20 years and generic drugs can be manufactured.
However, in cases of public health emergencies or unfair pricing, countries are allowed to produce a generic version of drugs still under patent.
The manufacture of generic drugs within the developing world makes them much cheaper and therefore more affordable for local people.
For example, according to UNAIDS, an umbrella group for five U.N. agencies, the World Bank and the World Health Organization, Ceftriaxone, a drug used for respiratory infections, meningitis, and gonorrhoea, sells for between $1,525 and $3,380 in Western countries, while its generic equivalent sells for $277 in India.
Cutting the cost
Some developing countries already face legal action for producing or planning to allow production of such generic drugs.
One such country is Brazil, which makes and distributes drugs free of charge to HIV-infected people -- a move that has resulted in a 50% drop in the AIDS death rate since 1996.
A combination of two AIDS drugs, AZT and 3TC, made by UK-based GlaxoSmithKline, sells for $18 a day in the U.S., but is marketed by generic manufacturers in Brazil for $1.50, according to UNAIDS.
South Africa, where 10% of the population is HIV-positive, is also being sued by a group of about 40 drug companies in an attempt to stop the uncontrolled importation or manufacture of cut-price versions of patented AIDS drugs.
The country's HIV epidemic is one of the fastest growing in the world -- 1,700 new HIV infections every day. This means that within three years almost 250,000 South Africans are expected to die of AIDS every year, with the figure rising to more than 500,000 by 2008.
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