Pharmaceuticals in Africa: is the industry in Africa fit for purpose?

Author:Ford, Neil

Africa carries around 24% of the global disease and illness burden but its pharmaceutical industry is worth less than 1% of this $857bn global industry. However, the amount that is spent on healthcare in Africa is rising at the rate of around 10% per year as the continent becomes wealthier and as the proportion of its middleclass increases. But medicine falls into a different category compared to other products access to it is often a matter of life and death, and demand is not based on choice but on absolute need. This throws up several controversial issues, including that of generic drugs that can be hundreds of times cheaper than original branded products. We examine all these issues in this special focus on the pharmaceutical industry in Africa and also look at the encouraging growth of local manufacturing on the continent.

Report by Associate Editor, Neil Ford.

The health and pharmaceutical industries are bound to provoke great emotion, not least because there is a significant difference between the two. Many of the great advances in global public health have been achieved without the benefit of pharmaceuticals, through improved access to clean water and sanitation. Yet the drug industry provides the key to tackling HIV-AIDS, malaria and many of the other big killers in Africa.

Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry is probably the best microscope under which to examine the tensions between the private sector, state finances and individual benefit, as it ultimately requires putting a price on human life.

In the context of sub-Saharan Africa, these tensions become all the more acute because of the prevalence of so many illnesses encompassing both those that have been brought under control in much of the rest of the world; and newer illnesses, such as HIV-AIDS and Ebola, which have generated a great deal of headlines in the rest of the world, but which claim the majority of their victims within the continent.

Africa can be seen as the frontline in the battle between health and illness but there is a huge mismatch between African medical needs and the continent's ability to pay. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 24% of the global disease burden.

The big problem is that most of the global pharmaceutical sector's big guns are deployed elsewhere. The industry was worth $857bn in 2012 but this figure was distributed extremely irregularly around the planet.

North America accounted for a massive...

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