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Springing Into Action for Medicines

I'm dreading Spring. Forget the season of new beginnings, all I can think of are the looming months of itchy eyes, snot filled tissues and freak sneeze attacks.

I know it sounds dramatic, but hay fever's annual assault on my allergies has the potential to make me quite a miserable human: to turn me into the type of person who would admit to hating such an objectively beautiful time of year.

Yet it doesn't. Over the past 50 years the pharmaceutical industry has developed 14 new drugs for hay fever. I can pick up my drug of choice for less than the price of a coffee - what a relief, what a life-saver!

Well, not exactly. It might be annoying, but I'm not going to die from hay fever.

Tuberculosis (TB) on the other hand, kills 1.5 million people every single year, but for this only two new drugs have been developed.

Even with current treatment, TB can cause long-term damage to the central nervous system, the brain, the digestive and circulatory systems, lymph nodes, skin, joints and bones. We are also seeing more and more cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis. Patients are having to take tens of thousands of pills that often cause devastating side effects such as deafness and psychosis.

Why then, considering the evidently greater severity and suffering caused by TB, have there been seven times as many treatments for hay-fever? It's because our current system of medical research and development prioritises the potential to make profits over the potential to save lives.

As 95% of all TB cases occur in low and middle income countries, there's little financial incentive to develop drugs to treat it. This is the case for most diseases which predominantly affect the developing world, resulting in the health needs of the poorest people getting largely ignored, whilst the majority of research and development (R&D) investment is funnelled into ailments that affect wealthier markets: such as my allergy to pollen.

But the current pharmaceutical model doesn't only neglect the R&D of such neglected diseases but also allows new drugs which are created to be monopolised, patented and priced well out of the reach of those who need it most.

Whilst I can pop down to almost any pharmacist and pick up hay-fever tablets for as little as 99p for 30, Gilead, the drug company responsible for a new life-saving Hepatitis C drug, Sofosbuvir, has ensured this breakthrough treatment costs $1000 per pill. At this very moment between 130-150 million people globally are living with chronic Hepatitis C, yet only 1% can currently afford Sofosbuvir.

This current system isn't just absurd, it's immoral.

That's why the Student Stop AIDS Campaign, powered by Restless Development, are marking this year's World TB Day with a Day of Action. On the 24th March young people from across the country are descending on London in abject refusal that change isn't possible. They're lobbying the UK government to lead the way internationally and publically support the implementation of an alternative needs-driven R&D system: "Push, Pull, Pool" - proposed and developed by Médecins Sans Frontières.

This project counters the lack of financial benefit by "pushing" governments to commit 0.01% of their GDP to a Global Fund, which will fund new research into neglected diseases and get the ball rolling. It then aims to "pull" in pharmaceutical companies by creating prize funds to reward researchers and incentivise the development process. Finally, all intellectual property will be "pooled", ensuring no one company can monopolise the finished product, driving prices down and increasing access to these new medicines worldwide.

Living in the UK it's so easy to take for granted how lucky we are that our hospitals and pharmacy shelves are stocked to the brim with a wide range of affordable drugs for inconvenient ailments such as runny noses. But as citizens of a country which clearly recognises the importance of healthcare, we have a duty to ensure that our government is also committed to leading the way for health justice globally. Access to medicines shouldn't be a privilege reserved for those who happen to be born in a rich country, it's an undeniable human right for all.

At worst, this new model and the drugs it could develop will help improve the quality of millions of lives, and at best, it could save them. Now I know I said I'm dreading Spring, but this is an opportunity for a new beginning I'm looking forward to.

Find out more and join us in the fight for missing medicines here.

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