Access to medicines: EU must show leadership in fight against chronic diseases

Written by Anthony Gitau on 21 November 2016 in Thought Leader
Thought Leader

The EU must show leadership in the fight against chronic diseases, argues Anthony Gitau.

Anthony Gitau  Photo credit: Novartis


There is a common belief that the pharmaceutical industry is a barrier to access to medicines. As an individual and as a manager working in the industry, I would like to challenge this preconception.

Back in 2000 I was a newly-qualified sales representative. One of the products I was promoting was an antimalarial.

As it happened, I was in a pharmacy in Kenya’s Kisii district talking to a pharmacist about an antimalarial. An old lady came in and handed over a prescription. She looked dismayed when the pharmacist told her the price and said she couldn’t afford the antimalarial which was for her gravely-ill grandson. She headed wearily for the door. I decided to pay for the medicine.


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As an individual, I could help one person but, I knew I couldn’t do it for everyone. In contrast, as an executive in my company, I can work to help increase access to medicines for many more people.

Through the Novartis Access programme, we are delivering affordable medicines to patients affected by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) across Kenya - and we hope to reach 20 million people worldwide by 2020.

In Kenya, no patient should pay more than about US $1.50 per treatment per month.

Peninah is one of those already benefitting from Novartis Access. She lives in Kirinyaga County, close to Mount Kenya. Her children knew that her racing heartbeat and constant headaches were not the normal signs of old age and persuaded her to go to a clinic. The 65-year-old was reluctant at first, but now has her blood pressure in check.

Yet, affordable medicines alone are not enough. Countries need doctors and nurses trained in chronic diseases, with the right equipment to provide diagnoses, and a reliable supply chain to ensure patients have long term access to the treatments they need.

This is why Novartis Access is collaborating with governments and NGOs to overcome these issues and to strengthen healthcare systems.

Recently, we started working with the Kenya Red Cross and faith-based organisations such as the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Christian Health Association of Kenya to conduct community and patient awareness campaigns on the ground.

Many people are surprised to learn that NCDs will soon likely kill more Africans than infectious diseases such as HIV, TB and Malaria.

In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, the death toll of NCDs will equal that of communicable diseases, maternal and newborn deaths, and malnutrition combined.

I believe there needs to be a concerted effort to support the whole ecosystem around chronic diseases. The European Union’s leadership and focus will hopefully lead to a reprioritisation of NCDs in the national agenda, policy and budgeting of low-and middle-income countries.

About the author

Anthony Gitau is Head of Novartis Access, Kenya

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