On Friday, the World Health Organization released a new version of the Model List of Essential Medicines to include new treatment options for hepatitis C, among others. This improves access to ground-breaking drugs that manifest clear benefits and could greatly impact public health around the world.
Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general for the WHO, said it is important to ensure that anyone in need of medication is given access to effective drugs as they are released. Placing these drugs on the Essential Medicines List is the first step toward that direction. Institutions and governments are increasingly turning to the WHO’s list to come up with their own list of essential medicines as they believe the organization only includes medicines that have been proven to be safe and effective.
Every two years, the Essential Medicines List is audited by a committee comprised of experts from the research, medical, academic and pharmaceutical fields. This year, the committee highlighted the importance of promoting equal access to essential medicines as well as the use of new drugs, a number of which are too expensive.
These include new medicines developed for treating hepatitis C, an infection that affects around 150 million individuals around the world and claims the lives of half a million people every year as chronic infection leads to liver cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. The disease persists globally, although it is most prevalent in several mid- and low-income countries.
Until recently, treating hepatitis C offered minimal benefits and came with adverse side effects. Five new drugs have been introduced to the market that offer improved treatment and reduced side effects. All five, including daclatasvir and sofosbuvir, have been included in the Essential Medicines List.
Basically, off-label drug use is also supported in situations where clear evidence of major benefits to the health of a patient is present, although not specifically indicated for a particular condition, like a number of medications for children.
“The Essential Medicines List includes medicines on the basis of safety and efficacy evidence, not on the basis of approved indications,” said Dr. Kees De Joncheere, Director of Essential Medicines for the WHO.
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, health systems and innovation assistant director-general for the organization, added that the Essential Medicines List is a starting point, not the finish line. The list exists to offer guidance on which medicines should be prioritized based on a public health and clinical perspective. Once potentially effective drugs have been identified, the challenge shifts to ensuring they are actually available for patients to use.