Global leaders dither while disease races to Latin America

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By Andrew Spiegel, Esq.

You're nearly twice as likely to die from colon cancer living in a Latin American country than you are living in the United States.

Global health leaders are trying to fix this disparity. But unfortunately, they've misdiagnosed the problem.

Some blame intellectual property protections for pharmaceuticals. They argue that allowing companies to patent new drugs prevents patients in developing regions from accessing lifesaving medicines. They want to eliminate patents altogether.

This strategy is certain to fail. Effective intellectual property protection and enforcement encourages medical research and development. Weakening patents would reduce access to cutting-edge cures. It's time to take a new approach.

In September at the UN in New York, world leaders will meet to discuss non-communicable diseases. These leaders should focus on improving healthcare infrastructure in the developing world. Chronic diseases are on the rise in developing countries and they're ill-prepared.

Consider colon cancer. Right now, the condition is less prevalent in Latin America than in North America. In Latin America, there are 11 cases per 100,000 people. In North America, there are 30 cases per 100,000.

But that could soon change. Many countries are beginning to adopt more Americanized diets, which experts believe may increase one's risk of developing colon cancer. Sales of processed foods in developing countries are growing almost 30 percent annually.

That will cause the global burden of colon cancer to nearly double by 2035. All told, non-communicable diseases will account for 70 percent of fatalities in developing countries by 2020.

The developing world lacks the resources to treat these diseases. Honduras, for instance, has only 30 doctors per 100,000 people. The United States has 6 times that amount.

Instead of addressing these challenges, global health leaders get sidetracked by stale arguments about weakening intellectual property protections.

It costs more than $2 billion to bring a new medicine to market. Intellectual property protections help researchers earn back this investment and encourage them to take this risk again.

Without these protections, companies would scale back drug development. That would lead to fewer lifesaving treatments. Patients would suffer.

Anti-intellectual property actions wouldn't even boost short-term access to medicines. More than 90 percent of the WHO's list of "essential medicines" are off-patent. IP isn't a barrier to access for people in the developing world.

But anti-IP measures and poor IP-enforcement are barriers to care. And they abound in Latin America.

Brazil, for instance, abuses "compulsory licensing." This policy allows for the production of a patented product without approval from the patent owner.

In 2007 the government allowed Brazilian companies to reproduce the U.S. anti-retroviral Efavirenz for 77,000 patients.

That prevented its U.S. creator, Merck, from recouping the massive investments it made to create the life-extending drug. There's no incentive for drug companies to innovate if countries can copy patented, costly drugs at the drop of a hat.

The developing world is on the brink of a chronic disease epidemic. At the upcoming UN meeting on non-communicable diseases, countries must combat it by improving healthcare infrastructure while also encouraging innovation.

Spiegel is co-founder and executive director of the Global Colon Cancer Association and a board member of the International Alliance of Patients' Organizations.

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