African medics root for cheaper hepatitis drugs

Delegates follow panelists during the discussion in the conference in Kigali. Dan Nsengiyumva

Political will from governments to negotiate with drug manufacturers has been suggested as one of the ways that African countries can reduce prices of viral hepatitis drugs, and be able to save many lives lost to the disease.

World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows an estimated 257 million people living with chronic hepatitis B and 71 million people living with chronic hepatitis C worldwide.

WHO estimates that chronic viral hepatitis is now the second biggest killer after tuberculosis and in Africa, it affects over 70 million people (60 million with Hepatitis B and 10 million with Hepatitis C), and the disease affects the most youthful and productive Africans, causing catastrophic financial liability in the treatment of advanced liver disease and emotional distress and stigmatisation.

Treatment for hepatitis is still a challenge in Africa, costing hundreds of dollars in some countries, and medics and activists have called for governments to take steps in negotiating with drug manufacturers so that patients access the drugs at subsidized prices.

Medics gathered in Kigali for the International Conference on AIDS and STIs (ICASA) have said that the prices can go lower if political will is available for local, regional and global collaborations to reduce the prices.

Craig McClure, a director at the Clinton Health Access Initiative highlighted the importance of getting the lessons learnt from the fight against HIV and apply them into fighting viral Hepatitis, among which making effort to drag down the price of commodities, diagnostics and drugs.

He gave Rwanda as an example. Hepatitis C drugs in the country stand at 60 USD – having been reduced from high prices - at some point Hep C drugs used to cost about 8000 US Dollars.

“We need much more activism now for viral hepatitis from communities,” he said.

Sharing Rwanda’s experience, Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana the Director-General of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, said that reduction of prices does not only require funds alone but partnerships and negotiations.

“The beginning for us was more of talking to people who had the medicine. We had the patients on this side, and they had the medicine on the other side. We were in-between so as that we make sure that the medicine gets to the people when they need it,” Nsanzimana said.

“Our patients did not have the money; the government was not able to pay the funding. But we managed to come to reasonable costs that helped us to treat the first a thousand patients.

“It is not just the money, its part the partnerships and negotiation.”

Kenneth Kabagambe, a board member on the World Hepatitis Alliance who is also a patient living with Hepatitis B, said that as measures are being taken for fighting Hepatitis, success will be registered if patients are put at the forefront

“Most of the successes registered in the HIV fight have come simply because the patients were put at the forefront of all the program. It should also be the same the same with viral hepatitis programs, we need to put the patients at the forefront.

A representative from Gilead Sciences an American Biotechnology company that researches, develops and commercialises drugs told the participants in the session that the secret remain for better access of drugs is “the political commitment,”

“I think we have two remarkable examples as Egypt and Rwanda,” he said.

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