All the 11-member countries of the South-East Asia Region (SEAR) are facing challenges to ensure access to safe, efficacious, quality and affordable medicines and medical products.

Despite progress over the past decade in improving access to essential medicines in the region, development has not been uniform.

Disparity is more pronounced in health centres than in hospitals, and much lower in the public sector compared with the private sector.

The WHO (World Health Organisation) during the third day of the Regional Committee (RC) meeting in Malé, called on countries across SEAR to take bold actions to ensure that all people in the region have access to safe, efficacious, quality and affordable medical products through collective strengths via greater inter-country cooperation.

Enhancing access to medicines was a key agenda item at the 70th session of the RC that was held in Maldives from September 6 to 10.

Regional Director for WHO SEAR, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, said overcoming barriers and ensuring that all people everywhere can access essential medicines is one of WHO SEAR’s priority areas of work and is vital to achieving universal health coverage.

“Significant progress has been made in recent years, including the creation of the South-East Asia Regulatory Network (SEARN) in 2016, which pools the region’s regulatory resources to enhance the safety and quality of medicines,” Dr Poonam Singh said. “We need to build on that progress and strengthen regional cooperation in a range of areas to further address this critical issue.”

Significant improvements have been made in access to medicines for HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria, and in the coverage of vaccines. Not much progress has been made in access to medicines for non-communicable diseases and other essential medicines for common illnesses.

Improving procurement and pricing, regulation, financing, delivery, and use of medicines are some of the interventions that contribute to improving access to quality medicines. Access to medicines has been a flagship priority for the WHO SEAR since 2014.

According to RC’s press release, estimated of 65 million people in the region are pushed into poverty due to out-of-pocket healthcare payments, cost of medicines being one of the main causes. “Poor-quality or unsafe medicines likewise affects peoples’ ability to access the treatment they need, when they need it, while weak supply chains and inefficient procurement provide similar barriers,” it states.

Dr Singh said inter-country and regional collaboration on public procurement and pricing can be scaled up through sharing information on medicines prices which would enhance countries’ negotiating positions when they are purchasing on the international market.

The RC stressed on the need to fully operationalise the SEARN initiative and take advantage of comparative strengths in a regulatory capacity.

The third key area, Dr Singh said, was that there was great potential for increased use of regionally produced, quality generic products. “There is likewise a pressing need to take advantage of TRIPS flexibilities and other opportunities in intellectual property and trade rules.”

Dr Singh said it was noted that rational use of medicines, especially antimicrobials, was vitally important region-wide to ensure these drugs remain fit for purpose. She urged countries to improve antimicrobial stewardship by applying the ACCESS, WATCH and RESERVE system outlined in WHO’s recently published essential medicines list.

Need for an improved data on trends in access to medicines is the fifth key area. Dr Singh said good data enabled decision-makers to determine how many people could not access the medicines they needed and where medicines were not available, and whether unsafe or ineffective products were on sale, and the scale of misuse or wastage of medicines was happening.

Dr Singh affirmed WHO’s support to countries as they strive to enhance access to medicine.

Dechen Tshomo