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Focus on cancer as WHO updates essential medicines list

In Summary

The five cancer therapies WHO added to the list are regarded as the best in terms of survival rates to treat melanoma, lung, blood and prostate cancers

WHO director General Tedros Adhanom at a press conference outside Afya House
WHO director General Tedros Adhanom at a press conference outside Afya House
Image: FILE

The Word Health Organisation has added important cancer fighting drugs to the new WHO Essential Medicines List and List of Essential Diagnostics.

The updated list was published on Tuesday.

These are critical health products that every country must prioritise and ensure they are widely available and affordable throughout the health systems.

The five cancer therapies WHO added to the list are regarded as the best in terms of survival rates to treat melanoma, lung, blood and prostate cancers.

They include two recently developed immunotherapies namely nivolumab and pembrolizumab.

The two according to the global health agency have delivered up to 50 per cent survival rates for advanced melanoma, a skin cancer that, until recently, was incurable.

Immunotherapy, also known as biologic therapy, is a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body's natural defenses to fight cancer.

The latest update adds 28 products for adults and 23 for children, and specifies new uses for 26 already-listed products, based on value for money, evidence and health impact.

“The inclusion in this list of some of the newest and most advanced cancer drugs is a strong statement that everyone deserves access to these life-saving medicines, not just those who can afford them,” WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

According to WHO, while several new cancer treatments have been marketed in recent years, only a few deliver sufficient therapeutic benefits to be considered essential.

 
 

“Around the world, more than 150 countries use WHO’s Essential Medicines List to guide decisions about which medicines represent the best value for money, based on evidence and health impact,” Ghebreyesus added.

WHO has also added 12 tests to the Diagnostics List to detect a wide range of solid tumours such as colorectal, liver, cervical, prostate, breast and germ cell cancers, as well as leukemia and lymphomas.

To support appropriate cancer diagnosis, a new section covering anatomical pathology testing was added; this service must be made available in specialized laboratories.

The decision was arrived at due to the fact that early cancer diagnosis is critical.

“Seventy 70 per of cancer deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries largely because most patients are diagnosed too late,” WHO notes.

Other updates to the list include new oral anticoagulants to prevent stroke, as an alternative to warfarin treatment of deep vein thrombosis.

“These are particularly advantageous for low-income countries as, unlike warfarin, they do not require regular monitoring.”

To address the life threatening problem of excessive bleeding after childbirth, WHO has proposed the use of carbetocin rather than the currently used therapy, oxytocin.