Waiting to Act: The Sahel Food Crisis is Already A Humanitarian Emergency

On July 20, 2011 the United Nations announced that in parts of Somalia, food security had deteriorated so significantly that two regions were now considered to be in famine, and more than 3.7 million people were in desperate need of assistance. This was the first major famine to be declared since 2000, and became the most prominent evidence of the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa at the time.

To many in the humanitarian aid community, this was confirmation of what had been witnessed on the ground for some time. Most major aid organizations had been operating in this region for years and had described the worsening situation for months. In fact, a whole system dedicated to monitoring food accessibility – the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) – had sounded warnings of famine based on a number of indicators in the region for over a year.

Fast forward to August 2012, and the cruel cycle is poised to repeat itself again. FEWS Net reports that about 16 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda are facing “Stressed (IPC Phase 2) to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) levels of food insecurity,” due to conflict, poor rains, high food prices, and poor humanitarian access in some regions (such as in the Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states of Sudan, where humanitarian access is so poor that some agencies – such as Médecins Sans Frontières – have been forced to leave altogether).

In the Sahel Region – an impoverished area of West Africa consisting of Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad – an estimated 18 million people are affected by a growing food crisis, again the result of the interaction of horrific circumstances of drought, conflict, high food prices, and extreme poverty. A rapid nutrition assessment conducted in Niger by World Vision in early 2012 found rates of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) averaging 14.4%, with a high of 17.1% in one region. GAM is an important, though late, indicator of malnutrition and is one of the criteria used in declaring a humanitarian emergency, when the prevalence of GAM in a population reaches or exceeds 15%. If the World Vision assessment is representative of the rest of the region, the Sahel food crisis is dangerously close to tipping into a massive regional humanitarian emergency. Many would argue that breaching the emergency threshold would only be epidemiologic confirmation of what is already happening.

And so, for another summer, the world is left watching and waiting for an already deplorable situation to breach an emergency threshold, triggering a global – though likely muted – humanitarian response. We saw this last year in the Horn of Africa, where the world waited and sought to manage the crisis, rather than the risks. The writing was on the wall, there, too – In Somalia, for instance, diesel prices  increased 45%, while local cereal prices rose 240% in some regions of the country and 100% in Ethiopia over the year leading up to the declaration of famine. This year, food prices in West Africa appear to be relatively stable, though are generally much higher than their seasonal averages, suggesting that high prices are here to stay, a factor influenced by rising fuel prices and pest infestations. Add to this the ongoing conflict in northern Mali, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, and poor rains that have resulted in poor crop yields, and a broader picture of the looming emergency begins to reveal itself.

And yet, the world appears poised once again to sit and wait for the situation to deteriorate significantly before we launch major humanitarian interventions. There are several important factors to note in this, the first being that building awareness is critical for building support for the relief efforts. In the Horn of Africa food crisis last year, donations and media coverage only picked up significantly after the United Nations declared the area to be in a state of famine, at which point the emergency had already been unfolding for months.

A declaration of famine may galvanize support, but waiting for a famine to launch a massive intervention across several countries hardly seems practical nor ethical. A declaration of famine is based on more than just food or malnutrition indicators; There must be evidence of three conditions in a given area, specifically: food shortages with a limited ability to cope, greater than 30% prevalence of global acute malnutrition, and crude mortality rates (deaths) equal to or greater than 2 deaths per 10,000 people per day. In essence, the declaration of famine means that people have died and will continue to die without major humanitarian intervention.

The world is faced with an important opportunity: Intervene now and avert famine in the Sahel region. Acting now must first address the immediate threats to life for the population, then focus on coordinated, sustained, long-term development beginning with agricultural and livestock support in order to benefit from future rains and to maximize the growing season and lead toward self-sufficiency. While western assistance should be welcomed, African countries should be playing the leading role in averting famine in the region and contributing to the development of local and regional knowledge and practices to encourage enhanced food security. Changes to agricultural sectors are desperately needed in order to move toward climate-resilient farming practices and away from export-dominated crops, in favour of crops for local food production. There are options for agricultural reform, and several lessons-learned that should be shared. In the immediate sense, however, what is needed are emergency interventions to ensure that the ongoing crisis in the Sahel region doesn’t tip from an emergency into a famine. And that’s a call to action that all countries should be listening to.

Further reading: A Dangerous Delay, a joint paper between Save the Children and Oxfam.

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Cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program for Refugees in Canada: Unfair, Mean-Spirited, and Economically Dubious

On June 30, bill C-31, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, comes in to effect, drastically changing the access that refugees in Canada have to health care. The short name is a misleading one: rather than enhancing the protections that refugees have in this country, the bill dismantles them for many claimants, reducing their access to essential health services.

With this bill comes sweeping changes to the way Canada treats refugees seeking asylum in this country, the most notable changes being the elimination of something called the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), a program that provides temporary health insurance to refugees and their dependents who are not yet covered under a provincial health care plan. Effectively, the program ensured that refugees arriving in Canada were not without access to healthcare, which seems the compassionate, ethical, and all-around right thing to do. It ensured that hospitals and health care professionals had a way of being compensated for providing medically-necessary treatment to refugees and also reduced the barriers to accessing the care that new arrivals to our country needed.

The IFHP provided access to things like primary and secondary care, as well as supplementary care like vision care, dentistry, mobility aids, and pharmaceuticals. However, our government has determined that the system is inherently unfair – not to refugees, but to Canadians who already live here. How is it unfair that a refugee arriving from Somalia be given a dental exam and access to insulin, you ask? The short answer is that Canada’s health care system relies on a mix of public and private insurance schemes, where some health services are covered by provincial health plans, while others are either paid for out-of-pocket, or by a private insurer. Supplementary care – vision care, dentistry, mobility aids, and pharmaceuticals, for example – are not routinely covered by a provincial health care plan for most Canadians, but rather are covered by private insurance, often provided as an employee benefit.

So, the removal of the IFHP for refugees sought to address this inequality. Not by reforming the system to increase access to health services for all Canadians, but rather to remove them from a vulnerable group because, according to Canadian Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney “…we do not want to ask Canadians to pay for benefits for protected persons and refugee claimants that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves.”

That narrative has prevailed through virtually all of the government’s messages on the subject, and has served as justification for denying a vulnerable population access to things like insulin and other life-saving medications: it’s unfair to everyone else to be providing health services for these people because other Canadians don’t have access to them through a public system. That’s quite an equalizer.

The point is further driven home by a document released by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, where they provide examples of coverage after the changes to IFHP take effect. To be frank, it’s chilling. Under a heading of “Medical Emergency – Heart Attack” they provide the following scenario:

A woman has chest pain and goes to the nearest hospital emergency room where a doctor finds she has suffered a heart attack. Urgent surgery is done to install a stent in an artery. She recovers well and leaves with a prescription for medication.

Sounds good if you’re a Canadian or a protected person or a refugee from a country that isn’t one of the Designated Countries of Origin (DCO). But if you’re a Roma from Hungary, and are therefore a claimant from a DCO, what services are you entitled to in the above scenario? “None.” How about this scenario:

A doctor confirms that a patient is pregnant. She gets prenatal health services for the pregnancy. There are no complications, she delivers the baby in a hospital and then has post-partum follow-up. Prenatal, delivery and post-partum health services are considered essential services.

Refugee claimant from a DCO? No services unless you pay. Even in any of the scenarios listed on the site, consultation may be provided, but the treatment (medications) are not. Expecting a refugee claimant to be able to pay for essential medicines upon their arrival is wholly unrealistic and flies in the face of compassion. More detailed discussions on the problems with the DCO designation and other concerns with the bill (including the impact it will have on children) are available elsewhere, and are really worth a read including this backgrounder on DCOs from Citizenship and Immigration whose opening line is “Too many tax dollars are spent on asylum claimants who are not in need of protection.”

The response to these cuts has been a vociferous outcry from health professionals who provide care to refugees and immigrants. In a country known for its multiculturalism and humanitarian ethos (whether the latter is factually accurate or not seems debatable), there is a considerable community of health care professionals who have worked diligently to provide high-quality care to these communities, and who have publicly opposed these cuts. This opposition has included protesting against Ministers who have supported these cuts, including emergency room physician Chris Keefer at the Toronto General Hospital who interrupted Minister Joe Oliver announcing:

“Doctors in this country will not remain silent in light of the Conservative government’s cuts to the refugee health program…Refugees who are coming from war-torn countries, fleeing hatred, fleeing crimes against humanity, and your government is about to cut the very essential medicines, the very essential services, that these people require in order to continue living.”

The video is available here, and is really worth watching.

Paradoxically, health services are generally provided in refugee and IDP camps by NGOs or by local governments, free of charge. This in no way should mean that the services are comprehensive or even remotely comparable to what is available in Canada, but the point is this: a refugee leaving a camp in Sudan to come to Canada has access to free health care in Sudan, but not in Canada. Does this not seem backward? When a country accepts refugees, this act is grounded in humanitarianism – people escaping horrific conditions and who cannot return should be afforded asylum, and this should include access to basic health services. Recognizing that there is a need for status as a refugee recognizes the need for special protection, the unraveling of which undermines the entire system.

The second argument advanced for the removal of the IFHP is economic: it’s too expensive, costing $84.6 million in 2010-2011. While it may be true that $84.6 million is a large sum of money, it is also true that removing preventative care only shifts the burden of disease further down the pipeline. It is far cheaper to provide insulin to a diabetic than it is to treat ketoacidosis in an emergency room, or diabetic retinopathy. It is far cheaper to treat hypertension in a primary care setting (including drugs) than it is to perform open-heart surgery or treat an aneurysm. The list goes on, and anyone with a modicum of understanding of public health could tell you that the economics of prevention are sound: preventing or treating disease early on is far cheaper than dealing with its consequences.

Yet, this is exactly what removing the IFHP will do: the burden will be shifted downstream to the provinces, either as an acute emergency or as a long-term consequence of untreated disease once refugees become part of a provincial health care scheme. The economic argument is a poor one.

Finally, the argument of abuse comes in to play – people who abuse the immigration system, make bogus refugee claims, or some other assortment of claims to validate the “necessary” reforms to the immigration system. I have worked with refugees and immigrants in Canada and abroad. I have worked in multiple internally displaced persons camps, in slums, and in areas affected by conflict. These are miserable places, and to suggest that people escaping them are somehow abusing Canadian generosity or taking advantage of us is disingenuous, at best, and certainly cold and callous. As UNHCR has so poignantly stated: No one wants to be a refugee.

Fundamentally, this move is mean-spirited and devoid of any rational economic argument. It’s penny-wise and pound foolish. They are irrational and inhumane cuts to vital health services that will without doubt have drastic negative effects on the health of some of our country’s most vulnerable people. As a healthcare professional, I do not and can not support these cuts, and I am not alone.

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Mapping Health Facilities in Crises – Reflections and Directions

I am wrapping up my thesis research (finally!), which focuses on the mapping of health facilities in crisis settings. Over the past 3 years, I have spent countless hours looking at datasets, GPS coordinates, and long lists of indicators of the functionality of health facilities. I have been looking to see what effective tools are out there for conducting health facilities censuses, mapping of health facilities, understanding their capacity to deliver health services, and translating what’s going on on the ground into meaningful datasets. In essence – figuring out who is where, doing what, and what capacity they have to do it.

Simple questions, right? Not so fast.

What we have discovered is that these data are notoriously scarce, particularly in crisis settings. Really, what we have found is that usable, accurate data about health facilities like hospitals or foreign medical teams (field hospitals) are hard to come by.

Let’s look at Haiti, where I spent some time in November and December of 2011 looking at health facilities mapping. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in 2010, several lists of health facilities emerged: from the Sahana Foundation, to Travax, to an MSPP/PAHO list of health facilities, to OpenStreetMap. All of these initiatives provided something that was sorely missing in Haiti: a list of the functioning health facilities in Port-au-Prince and around the country. Most of them even mapped it, sometimes down to the number of beds that were available. This information was regrettably scarce, and many organizations put considerable time and effort into collecting it and making it available online. Kudos.

The expertise that I have been developing these past few years is very much a health systems in humanitarian crises one, and when I am on the ground I rely on my knowledge as a clinician and as a population health researcher/practitioner to make sense of what I see around me. When I walk in to a hospital or clinic, there are certain things that I want to see or processes that need to be happening. It’s more than data, it’s dynamic interactions. Interestingly, most of the reviews of the health facilities data in Haiti that I have seen have very much focused on the ICT-aspects, rather than the collection or use of the data.

Rather than coming from an ICT perspective, I look at health facilities mapping as being comprised of three discrete, but connected, components:

  1. A data collection tool, including the relevant indicators that will be collected about each health facility, at each health facility
  2. A platform for collecting and analyzing reports from each health facility, whether self-submitted or collected on-site by surveyors
  3. Data visualization and presentation platforms, including maps (like Ushahidi) and humanitarian dashboards, summarizing relevant findings and displaying them in useful ways

The great successes in mapping health facilities in Haiti were, in my opinion, in component #3 – a platform for displaying and communicating important information through unique ICT platforms. There were a number of people who were working effectively to provide very usable data interfaces that could have shared very useful information. However, the merging of datasets and conducting analysis (component #2) were, I think, weak in large part due to the absence of robust and useful data (component #1). Does this amount to a failure of the system? Certainly not, but it highlighted an area that needs to be developed (enter my thesis research).

One of the critical challenges that I have seen with regard to health facilities data is that you can collect innumerable pieces of information about a facility and can quickly become overloaded with data that are not terribly useful. Furthermore, if the data don’t allow for meaningful analysis of key indicators and benchmarks (several of which exist), then we’re not meeting our objectives, and we’re also not likely influencing decision-making at the coordination level.

This raises an important question: who are the data being collected for? If the answer is for NGOs providing short-term relief, then their needs are likely to be much more basic than what the Ministry of Health or the Health Cluster needs for coordination. Short-term relief operations require an assessment of needs and available resources so as to reduce duplication and improve equitable access to essential health services. Similarly, patients requiring care need to know where functional health facilities are so they know where to go for the kind of services they need. These are more straightforward.

From the perspective of health systems strengthening and humanitarian coordination, however, the need for complexity begins to increase and more detailed indicators become necessary. Again, though, there is a balance between being overwhelmed with data and having enough information to make informed decisions. Different time segments of crisis response demand different levels of data complexity –  As part of the initial response, information needs are far simpler – where are the existing health facilities? What capacity do they have? Are they still functioning? What services do they provide? This should be a coordinated part of information management in crises. But, the data need to evolve into more complex data sets and pieces of analysis to allow for detailed inventories of facilities, human resources, and services. Some guidance on frameworks exists, but we need to delve into the issue in greater detail. Furthermore, we need to think about how to bridge in existing databases of health facilities into a crisis response model, because health facilities master lists do exist in some places. We are working on developing this kind of health information system and framework as part of my research and hope to be able to pilot it in the near future, particularly in countries with varying levels of information needs, arising from protracted emergencies.

All of this ties in to the need for there to be structure and clarity to the data being collected. The efforts in Haiti were excellent – but most were ad-hoc and the data collected lacked structure with regard to health services information management, and often didn’t make sense to many of us with health systems expertise. That doesn’t mean that it was bad, it means that there was not enough multilateral information exchange about what information would be most useful to those running the show. We are still developing this science, but we are expanding the understanding and evidence base for health facilities mapping in crisis settings and intend to have some solid recommendations available shortly.

Fundamentally, we need to bridge the gaps between expertise in health systems, public health, health services delivery, and ICTs in crisis settings. The Haiti experience has been a solid proof-of-concept, in my mind, that if we build collaboration amongst us, we can provide useful, timely, and accurate information on health facilities even in austere settings, through the use of novel technologies (like SMS and web-based platforms). But, we need to ensure that these data are in usable forms, using standard measurement indicators, and collected, analyzed, and displayed in a way that makes sense to those who need them.

My time spent working in this area has allowed me to have fantastic conversations with brilliant minds about these problems – this is precisely what being a scholar/practitioner is all about. I look forward to continuing these conversations and practice.

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Kony 2012, and the role of academia in advocacy

Something perplexing happened over the past week: my Facebook feed took a strong, rights-based stance on a global political issue, not seen since that time about a month ago when suddenly everyone was an intellectual property expert and free speech advocate who despised SOPA.

By now, I’m sure most people reading this have already viewed, or have heard of, the Kony 2012 video, a 30 minute production by an American NGO called Invisible Children. In the video, the creators propose making Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and an all-around asshole and terrible person, a household name in order to bolster support in the United States, Canada and at the United Nations to bring him to justice. The basis of the campaign is that Kony and other warlords in Central African countries have operated with more or less impunity for decades, neglected by much of the international community, and with few people in places like Canada being aware of who they are or what they’re doing.

Regrettably, there are some problems with this approach, many of which have been highlighted by authors much more well-versed in the current political realities of Uganda and central Africa than I am. Their criticisms generally address 3 central themes:

  1. The complexities of the Ugandan and LRA situation are underplayed by the video
  2. The video portrays Ugandans as helpless, whose only hope is the mobilization of (misinformed) North Americans to rescue them
  3. It is unclear what Invisible Children’s goals actually are, and the notion of bringing ‘justice’ to those affected by the LRA and the Ugandan army is intensely more complex than arresting Joseph Kony (also check out this post)

Add to this some concerns about the organization’s finances and the fact that Joseph Kony is unlikely to actually be in Uganda, and it seems that the blogosphere has had quite a time pointing out some inconsistencies and some major concerns within the campaign and generally being pretty skeptical about the whole thing. There’s a precedent for this, given that a lot of mushroom campaigns (those that appear overnight) have appeared after major disasters or as part of other longer-term development campaigns, only to raise a lot of capital and achieve essentially nothing. It’s important to point out, however, that Invisible Children have responded to these critiques in a fairly detailed post on their website, something that should not be overlooked.

Fundamentally, I have a problem with the critiques that appear overnight on these global issues and campaigns, poking holes in their arguments and criticizing the fact that they breeze over some intricate and complex socio-political or economic arguments and facts. I’m a scientist and an academic – I live and breathe complexity and have a deep affinity and love for data and facts; it’s one of the things that lends us, in academia, credibility. I simply can’t and won’t argue that we should do away with facts, or suggest that the end justifies the means. That can have disastrous consequences.

But, these campaigns highlight a fatal flaw in what so many of us do, and that is that we rarely make the results of what we do accessible to the general public, and too few of us do actual, operational research in partnership with credible on-the-ground organizations to make sure that our research findings are translated into action. We invest years of our life into detailed study of complex subjects, but spend far too little time working on making these accessible to people outside of our own worlds. Let’s be real, a handful of people read your (and my) Master’s thesis, and I can be sure that most of the people who have latched onto the Kony 2012 campaign don’t receive or read American Political Science Review or Forced Migration Review.

Is it the Ivory Tower argument? Yep. Are we getting better at entering into public discourse around critical global issues? Yep. Are many of us as effective at going viral as Kony 2012? Nope.

I don’t disagree with many of the critiques put forward by prominent bloggers and academics around the Kony 2012 campaign – they offer a valid, critical analysis of what this campaign consists of, and provides an experiential account of the complexities of foreign policy, international development, and life in Uganda, in general. But to be clear, 4 days ago a lot of people had no idea who Joseph Kony was, despite the fact that a number of scholars, journalists and other professionals have spent their lives studying the LRA and its presence in Central Africa and its effects on the population, and I think it’s fairly safe to assume that despite the fact that we research the realities and circumstances of these deplorable settings, it’s rarely the academic community that galvanizes support for these causes.

Does this mean that we should discount the complexity of the situation as long as we achieve some morally-backed goal, or reduce our work to a few simplistic catch phrases to bring some (any) media attention to our work? Of course not. What it means is that as we in academia continue to push for high-level discourse and evidence-based policy and action on the part of governments, NGOs, and civil society, we need to be better at engaging in plain language discourse that is accessible, factually accurate, and actionable to people outside of academia. This is where Kony 2012 has succeeded, and where many of us have not. The results and effects of our work, our time, and our dedication to subjects of importance to us and the world need to be disseminated much more broadly and in a much more accessible way than they currently are.

We need to be offering visible, actionable discourse and recommendations to the public and to policymakers on how to take steps to right the wrongs we uncover. Many of us are trying – and that’s commendable – but this needs to become the norm within academia, whereby our work is conducted systematically using sound methods to generate accurate findings and recommendations of importance to our field of study, that are accessible and usable by those outside of it. As so many of us have raised concerns about the practicality and veracity of the Kony 2012 campaign, we need to lead the charge in setting an example of what these kinds of campaigns ought to be. There are innumerable injustices and inequities taking place around that world that many of us are trying to understand and correct; let’s make sure our work plays prominently in the public discourse of how to do this.

Some other valuable reads:

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Advance Market Commitments for New Vaccines – Lessons from the Pneumococcal Vaccine

In global public health, we talk about a class of diseases that cause significant morbidity and mortality, but for which treatments are either unavailable, ineffective, or toxic, known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). One of the main problems with NTDs is that they predominantly occur in populations who lack the financial means of purchasing new drugs (which are often expensive) to treat them. Thus, there exists little financial incentive for researchers, research funders or a pharmaceutical company to invest in the development of new drugs to treat these conditions, because of the perceived lack of return on their investment.

This has long been a challenge in public health – how do we stimulate the needed research and development to address the world’s most salient public health problems, when the return on investment is likely to be poor?

There is no catch-all solution to this problem, so a number of potential solutions have emerged. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), for example, is a not-for-profit research and development organization that works in collaboration with a long list of partners, from the pharmaceutical industry to universities and university spin-offs. As drugs are developed through the collaboration, different arrangements made by DNDi ensure that the drugs are available and affordable, using different intellectual property arrangements.

This addresses concerns for drugs being developed through the partnership, but doesn’t address the issue of poor access to drugs or vaccines already on the market.

As previously reported, pneumonia is currently the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5, accounting for about 18% of child deaths worldwide, followed by diarrhea and malaria as the second and third leading causes of death. That’s huge, and a lot of pneumonias can be prevented through the use of vaccines. However, getting vaccines to people in poorer countries is a challenge because vaccines do not fit into the contemporary model of most alternative intellectual property arrangements like compulsory licenses or the lure of cheap generic pharmaceuticals.

One problem is that vaccines are difficult to produce. The manufacturing capacity required to produce vaccines – which is quite sophisticated – is greater than what is needed to stamp out medications in tablet form. Vaccines are biologically complex, so producing them isn’t as easy as producing something like paracetamol. For this reason, there are fewer pharmaceutical companies entering into the market, and even fewer capable of producing vaccines on the cheap.

One solution, proposed by the GAVI Alliance, is something called an Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which guarantees a market for vaccine producers and provides incentive for investing in research and development by ensuring a financial return on that investment. This addresses one of the critical shortfalls, above, in the NTDs problem, where financial incentives are weak.

GAVI administers the AMC, which requires manufacturers to commit to providing a share of the targeted 200 million doses of a vaccine. Currently, the AMC states that no dose can cost more than $3.50, and this cost is covered in part by GAVI and in part by the recipient country government (in Malawi, the government is paying $0.20 per dose for the pneumococcal vaccine, which – considering the cost of treating a case of severe pneumonia – is a pretty solid return on investment). By comparison, in rich countries, the cost per dose is between $54-108.

GAVI, through it donor partners (currently: Italy, UK, Canada, Russia, Norway, and the Gates Foundation), agrees to purchase a certain number of the vaccines at a fixed price point, for a certain number of years, thus guaranteeing a market for vaccines once they are developed. The economy of scale allows manufacturers to increase their production and bring costs down, while ensuring that there is a market on the other end to buy them.

Several key questions emerge from this arrangement: is the AMC increasing access to the vaccines in a more timely manner than if the market were left on its own? Is the cost of the program, as a whole, producing the anticipated cost-reductions per vaccine?

First, let’s consider the issue of access. The vaccine currently being used  in Malawi is called Prevnar-13, manufactured by Pfizer. Prevnar-13 (which protects against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria) was approved by the US Food and Drug and Drug Administration on November 24, 2010. For most new vaccines, the delay between when they are available in rich countries and when they’re available in low-income countries can be 10-15 years, probably because pharmaceutical companies need to recoup their investment in research and development in richer countries before introducing them in countries where the market can only sustain lower costs, and for which the market is not guaranteed. However, in the case of Prevnar-13, it was available in Nicaragua 10 months after it was introduced in the USA, as a result of the GAVI AMC. GAVI’s goal is to reach 40 developing countries with the vaccine by 2015.

This would seem to suggest that the AMC is, in fact, working as it was intended and increasing access to cheaper versions of the vaccine.

Some criticisms have emerged regarding the financing of this model, as highlighted in an editorial in Nature Medicine in 2011. The crux of the argument, basically, is that: (1) the cost per child saved under the GAVI AMC is $4,722, and immunization packages for other diseases (like polio, measles, and yellow fever) can save more children for less; and (2) The GAVI model serves the interests of the pharmaceutical companies.

These seem to be flawed arguments. The AMC model is designed with the intention of stimulating vaccine development and distribution that may otherwise be neglected, while reducing costs for new vaccines that are still under patent in rich countries (and therefore, more expensive). Arguably, this needs to be a part of a more global focus on increasing access to vaccines in general (like polio, measles, and yellow fever), however the focus of the AMC is on expediting the availability of the pneumococcal vaccine in countries like Malawi (which already has exceptionally high vaccine coverage rates for other vaccines), for whom $54 a dose is simply out of reach. If nothing else, there is an ethical imperative to provide an available vaccine to populations who are disproportionately affected by a condition prevented by a vaccine. Pitting one disease against another seems a poor argument to make.

Pharmaceutical companies clearly have an interest in generating profit from the technologies they produce. However, as has been shown repeatedly, the pharmaceutical industry rarely profits from the introduction of new drugs in developing countries, precisely because they can’t afford to purchase them at the same price point as rich countries can. Thus, pursuing patent protection and distribution in many poor countries is rarely in the pharmaceutical company’s interest, and these countries rarely factor into how they make money. Thus, these new products are rarely accessible to developing countries, and unless we start finding ways around this, it seems unlikely that this will change.

Compulsory licensing isn’t going to achieve this, for the reason that producing the vaccines is costly and it’s unlikely that a generic manufacture is willing to invest in the technology to do so.The start-up costs of having a generic company produce a vaccine are likely going to offset the cost reductions, and issuing a compulsory license (thus allowing the country to essentially ignore the patent) is a politically-charged intervention.

The AMC puts the global public health community (particularly those from the access to essential medicines community) closer to the pharmaceutical industry than perhaps we would like to be; However, it’s important to consider this in the broader context of results. Results that suggest that the pneumococcal vaccine became available quicker than most other vaccines in developing countries, and that the cost per dose remains steeply discounted from the cost per dose in rich countries.

Fundamentally, this is the hand we have been dealt. The pneumococcal vaccine has been brought to market by major pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer and Wyeth), who are the current patent holders. Producing it under a compulsory license is probably impractical and the costs of production may not result in cost-savings and certainly won’t result in saving time from when the vaccines are brought to market in the US or Canada and when they’re available in developing countries. Had the vaccine been produced through a pooled, non-profit intellectual property arrangement, we might be in a different situation; but we’re not.

For now, the AMC administered by GAVI has succeeded in bringing the pneumococcal vaccine to populations who likely wouldn’t have access to it today without the arrangement. Is it perfect? Nope. But, it is a different approach to access to new technologies that seems to be working. In global public health, it’s important that we focus on interventions that are successful (even if marginally so), and continue to refine them even further until they’re flawless and address global health problems head-on. Celebrate our successes and then make them better.

Check out:

International Vaccine Access Center Twitter: @IVACTweets and @NoMorePneumo


Gabriel P, Goulding R, Morgan-Jonker C, Turvey S, & Nickerson J (2010). Fostering Canadian drug research and development for neglected tropical diseases. Open medicine, 4 (2) PMID: 21709722
Scudellari, M. (2011). Are advance market commitments for drugs a real advance? Nature Medicine, 17 (2), 139-139 DOI: 10.1038/nm0211-139

Posted in Essential Medicines, Global Health, Pneumonia, Population Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off