That was one conclusion from an OECD conference on Biotechnology for Infectious Diseases, which brought together politicians, scientists, industry and health policy experts in Lisbon in October.
Participants agreed that the current situation, where 72% of the world’s population has access to only 11% of the medication, is not acceptable. HIV/AIDS in South Africa has meant a 50% loss of agricultural production and a crumbling education system trying to cope with dying teachers and orphaned students.
But infectious diseases are also a developed country problem. OECD countries are seeing a re-emergence of diseases such as measles and tuberculosis once thought to have been eradicated, either through mutation or because people are no longer taking prophylactic measures to protect themselves.
In all countries, vaccines, many of them produced through advances in biotechnology, are the most cost-effective way of preventing infectious disease. Every dollar spent on a shot for measles, mumps and rubella saves US$16.35 in healthcare costs and every dollar spent on the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine saves US$6.21. Still, vaccines represent only 3% of the market for medicines.
As OECD countries lead the research, development and production of new vaccines, they have a responsibility to build public/private partnerships in this area, conference participants said. These partnerships will allow researchers to find cures, pharmaceutical companies to make the profit their shareholders demand, and help developing countries to build the capacity and infrastructure to provide their citizens with the medications they need.
©OECD Observer No 235, December 2002