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Life-saving drug not widely used in Africa - because its too cheap


Low Cost Fails To Ensure The Availability Of Lifesaving Drug

A life-saving drug used to treat seriously-ill pregnant women in Africa is not widely available – in part because it’s too cheap. Magnesium sulphate is a low-cost but effective treatment for eclampsia and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. The disease, although relatively rare, claims the lives of more than 63,000 women a year, mostly in poorer countries and can also kill unborn children.

But researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), working with colleagues in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Norway, found that availability of the drug is patchy in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Writing in this week’s edition of the prestigious British Medical Journal, they said that part of the problem was that because the drug is cheap, pharmaceutical companies do not press for its registration with health authorities or market it widely as the profits to be made from it are small.

But the research team also noted that long delays in registration of drugs, clumsy health bureaucracies in both countries, as well as a lack of financial resources, had also contributed to the poor availability of the drug.

Eclampsia is a condition occurring during or immediately after pregnancy and involving fits which look similar to epilepsy attacks and can kill if not treated. It is associated with pre-eclampsia, with symptoms which may include high blood pressure and protein in the urine as well as intense headaches or visual disturbances. The growth of the unborn baby may also be affected.

But LSHTM researcher Simon Lewin said: “The drug’s low cost means that market forces cannot be relied on to ensure its availability in many places. As initiatives are developed to ensure wider access to expensive drugs critical to improving public health in Africa, low-cost and effective drugs should not be forgotten.”

It is estimated that eclampsia is responsible for more than 11 percent of maternal deaths in Mozambique alone. Public health lecturer Dr. Lewin said that ensuring the availability of effective drugs for priority health problems remained a key issue in Africa. He added: “Even where low-cost, effective treatments exist, drug availability for many common health problems remains poor in many places.”

“Governments, the World Health Organization, international professional organisations such as FIGO (the International Federation of Gynæcology and Obstetrics) and international donor agencies, should take a more active role in ensuring that all essential medicines are registered and available in developing countries.”

And he warned that a failure to address the problem would mean that meeting the Millennium Development Goals on health by the target date of 2015 would become even less likely.

Raymond Hainey | alfa
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