Access to Essential Medicines: A Human Rights Issue
Access to health care – and specifically access to essential medicines – is a justice issue. Access to basic medicines can mean the difference between life and death, and is a critical link in realizing the Right to Health. The UN Working Group on Access to Essential Medicines opened its report on Essential Medicines with the assertion that “The lack of access to life-saving and health-supporting medicines for an estimate 2 billion poor people stands as a direct contradiction to the fundamental principle of health as a human right.”
The Right to Health within a Human Rights Framework
The Right to the highest attainable standard of health is acknowledged by international consensus and stated in human rights instruments like Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that every person has the right to a standard of living adequate for his health and well-being – including the right to medical care – and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
There are also health consequences of being denied other human rights. Jonathan Mann, a former head of the WHO’s global AIDS program, observed how people infected with HIV were subjected to discrimination, and advanced ideas about the mutual influence of health and human rights that underpins current thought on the right to health.
According to The WHO, “Essential medicines are those that satisfy the priority health care needs of the population. They are selected with due regard to public health relevance, evidence on efficacy and safety, and comparative cost-effectiveness. Essential medicines are intended to be available within the context of functioning health systems at all times in adequate amounts, in the appropriate dosage forms, with assured quality and adequate information, and at a price the individual and the community can afford.”
The WHO has published a list of core essential medicines (and a complementary list as well), and encourages countries to establish their own lists. These national lists are critical as countries set priorities for both their national drug policy and make decisions about how to allocate resources for national health budgets.
Essential medicines are a core area of focus for the Millennium Development Goals. MDG Target 8.E states: In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.