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Access to medicines - fundamental to the right to health

If access to medicines was a movie, the title would be “A Tale of Grand Inequity, Inequality and Injustice”. These words from Leah Hoctor representing the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) addressing an expert consultation in Geneva, organized at the invitation of the Human Rights Council, on access to medicines as a fundamental component of the right to health.

The Human Rights Council encourages debate on improving access to medicines © WHO /Harold RuizThe consultation heard from a range of international experts including from the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR), the Special Rapporter, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Global Fund, and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The Human Rights Council has called for a broad exchange of views on human rights considerations in relation to access to medicines, expressing concern that for millions of people the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health “remains a distant goal”.

In a presentation to the participants, Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, pointed to figures from the WHO which estimate a third of the world’s population does not have ready access to essential medicines. Grover said that unlike in high income countries, in low and middle income nations, 50 to 90 percent of the cost of medicines is paid out of the patient’s own pocket.

The situation is exacerbated, Grover said by low rates of health coverage in many places. For example in Latin America only 35 percent of the population is covered, 10 percent in Asia and less than 8 percent in Africa.

Craig Mokhiber, speaking on behalf of the UN Human Rights office, noted that existing international law should guarantee that everyone “is entitled to a system of protection that ensures access to essential medicines for the prevention, treatment and control of diseases.”

“Human rights law provides standards for such access as well”, he said, “requiring that they are safe, affordable, of appropriate quality, and made available without discrimination.”

Mokhiber listed a number of steps that could be taken to see that those standards are met including expanding access to off-patent drugs, strengthened health systems, rights-respectful trade agreements and better systems of procurement, price and quality control.

Crucial, however, to any strategy according to Mokhiber, is “putting the principle of non-discrimination and attention to vulnerability at the center of our analysis”.

Richard Laing from the World Health Organization said access to medicines is a key indicator of governments’ commitment to the right to health. He called for a human rights based approach in the design of national medicine policies and in the selection of essential medicines endorsed by social security.

The call to underwrite health policies with human rights principles at the forefront was advocated by many of the speakers at the consultation.  Hoctor from the ICJ said the message had to include not just a right-to-health approach but a broader holistic human rights focus which acknowledges human lives are multi faceted, not one dimensional. 

In its resolution inviting the Office of the High Commissioner to convene an expert meeting to discuss access to medicines, the Human Right Council encouraged all States to include in their reports to the universal periodic review, information on the right of everyone to enjoy a high standard of health and on measures taken to promote access to medicines.

5 November 2010