The Developing World & Non-Communicable Diseases: A Pandemic of Drug Shortages & Inequitable Access

Throughout the developing world, health demographics are rapidly shifting from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) due to urbanization, lifestyle changes, and introduction of processed food. Although still retaining a significant portion of their communicable disease burden like tuberculosis and malaria, the prevalence of hypertension, diabetes, and cancer in developing countries has increased dramatically and is expected to cause every 7 out of 10 deaths by 2020. With the rise of these health ailments, the global health community has highlighted the importance and severity of these diseases through UN High-level meetings, incorporating relevant indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), and forming interagency coalitions within countries to address the barriers of NCD prevention and treatment. However, NCD medication supplies have remained an underappreciated barrier that humans affected by global health inequalities confront each day. The complications of drug supplies range from common medications being out of stock to not having a vital class of medications available at the health facility. The medication shortages that plague developing nation states often have a more pronounced effect on underserved populations – essentially causing an impossible barrier to treating their chronic condition and preventing morbidity/mortality.

Last month on November 20thThe Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology revealed predictions in the year 2030 regarding the world’s insulin supply that stunned health care professionals around the globe. From data gathered recently, the number of individuals diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes is estimated at 405 million people. Although some patients can be treated with oral or injectable diabetic medications like metformin or GLP1 inhibitors, there are approximately 63 million people on earth today that require the use of insulin to manage their diabetes. However, only 30 million individuals use insulin due to availability, affordability, and inequitable access to this essential class of medications. Although these numbers provide a clear indication of the necessity for change in regards to access to insulin globally, the scientists at Stanford that conducted the aforementioned study in The Lancet predicted that the number of individuals diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes will increase to 510 million in 2030 – 79 million of those will need insulin to proper manage their health disorder with only 38 million having equitable access to insulin. These statistics exhibit that, in 13 years, less than half of the people on this planet will be able to access insulin, a medication developed 97 years ago. Though over half of the world’s diagnosed Type 2 diabetics will reside in China, India, or the United States, the study continued and stated that the insulin supply shortage will distress those inhabiting Africa and Asia most significantly. The reasons formulated to explain this health disparity include the fact that three pharmaceutical industries control almost 100% of insulin being manufactured in the world, the complexity of insulin which is a hormone produced by living cells, and generic companies’ lack of interest in producing a biosimilar at an equitable price.   

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) pose an implausible health burden on the global society with 30% of all deaths worldwide being attributed to these ailments. Of this mortality caused by CVDs, it is estimated that 80% occurs in the developing world with projections suggesting a steady increase in this percentage. However, with equitable access to cardiovascular medications, approximately 75% of recurrent CVDs can be prevented causing a decrease in both mortality and morbidity for humanity. To determine the access to common cardiovascular medications like atenolol, captopril, hydrochlorothiazide, losartan, and nifedipine, the BMC Cardiovascular Disorders journal published findings in 2010 of a survey within 36 countries. The findings revealed that the drug shortages transcended more complex medications like insulin and affected the access of medications that are considered ubiquitous in the developed world. The analyzed data revealed that of the abovementioned medications in the 36 countries, only 26.3% was available in the public sector and 57.3% in the private sector. The study also stated that in several nations, the wages earned within one working day was insufficient to meet the cost of one day of purchasing treatment. When considering situations where monotherapy is inappropriate, this finding would disclose that treatment would be particularly unaffordable.

When considering access to NCD medications generally, wealth has been a substantial determinant of inequitable access to treatment of hypertension, asthma, cancer, and others classified as NCDs. In many low-income to middle-income countries (LMICs), a wealth gradient has even been observed. In order to gather information to disprove or support this theory, the BMJ Global Health Journal published a study conducted in Kenya in August 2018. The study administered surveys to patients prescribed hypertension, diabetes, and asthma medications and collected data on those medications available at their home, including location and cost of the service. When analyzing the data, the results clearly indicated a wealth gradient for each of the three diseases included in the study in terms of access. As household income increases, so does the likelihood that a family has an opportunity to obtain proper medication. In addition, the results showed that poorer patients had to travel further to obtain treatment than those with a higher income. Finally, and most meaningfully, poorer patients paid more for their medications than their fellow humans inhabiting other parts of the country.  

These global health inequalities are unjustifiable in a global society where the quantity and quality of medications on the market is incredible. The drug shortages and inequitable access differ between the developed world and developing world, but also by socioeconomic stratifications within countries themselves. In order to provide compassionate care to every human suffering from any of these ailments, governments need to begin initiatives to make insulin, losartan, albuterol, and every vital NCD medication available to every citizen in their country. Heads of states, pharmaceutical industries, ministries of health, and health care professionals need to accompany their citizens and patients with a health mindset moving away from health as a commodity to health as a right. Most urgently, universal health care coverage needs to be at the forefront of every national health agenda to properly address this pandemic of drug shortages and inequitable access.

Best of the Best

There was much to appreciate about the APHA 2008 meeting in San Diego, but two sessions that started off the meeting will stand out in my mind for a long time.

On Saturday we were supposed to have a Trade and Health tour of Tijuana, but because of increased violence there the trip was called off.  Instead, Tijuana came to us.  Over the course of three hours we heard from some inspiring environmental health efforts (a successful community effort to clean up a disgusting toxic waste dump) and occupational health work (a maquila worker-turned-activist).  The last hour was a fantastic film that I highly recommend to anyone interested in either or these topics:

Maquilopolis

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