Balance of the UNASUR Health Week

07/12/2016 - Rafael Giménez - ISAGS

Brief account of four key days for South American health: the approval of the Medicines Price Bank, the expansion of the food labelling policy, the unanimous criticism of the pharmaceutical industry‘s speculation regarding hepatitis C and the launch of ISAGS monthly journal: Health to the South.

Never before had the General Secretariat of UNASUR hosted in one same event such a high number of specialists, representatives of institutions and agencies, eminences of the area and diplomats dedicated to Health issues. UNASUR’s Health Week organized 4 events in 4 days, brought together more than 150 participants and hosted around 54 hours of exhibitions, debates and searches for consensus.

In addition to the envoys from the countries of the bloc, a delegation from the Council of Ministers of Central America and the Caribbean, specialists from Australia, El Salvador, the United States and the United Kingdom also took part in the event, as well as institutions such as the South Center (an intergovernmental organization of developing countries based in Switzerland) and DNDi (“Drug for Neglected Diseases Initiative” dedicated to non-profit research and development of drugs for diseases neglected by the pharmaceutical industry).

Along with the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, stood out the contributions of the ministers of Health of Colombia and Ecuador, Alejandro Gaviria and Margarita Guevara. Members of the United Nations High Level Panel on Access to Medicines were also present.

As a result of these days, the Medicines Price Bank of UNASUR was formed; the current status of the Mapping of regional medicine manufacturing capacities was assessed; the results of the food labelling policies of Chile and Ecuador as well as of Australia and the United Kingdom were socialized, aiming at subsidizing the implementation of similar policies in the other countries of the Union; and were shared the experiences of the South American countries in integral policies to combat overweight and obesity as risk factors for chronic non-communicable diseases (CNCDs), including the application of sugary drinks taxes as implemented in Berkeley, USA. Regarding the fight against hepatitis C, the criticisms of speculation and abusive practices of the pharmaceutical industry were overwhelming.

Below follows a review of the main achievements of the intense days spent in Mitad del Mundo, on the outskirts of Quito (Ecuador), where the Néstor Kirchner Building, headquarters of UNASUR, stands.


1. The UNASUR’s Medicines Price Bank was approved

The first of the events of the UNASUR Health Week consisted on the Workshop on Medicines Price Bank of UNASUR (BPMU), in which the Group on Universal Access to Medicines of UNASUR (GAUMU) defined the creation of the platform through which the South American countries will shape this tool of transcendental importance for the region. It took place during November 28th and 29th and demanded an intense democratic exercise until reaching, by consensus, a final document.

Through the BPMU, South America will be able to compare how much each country pays for each drug and thus increase their bargaining power and develop common strategies for future joint purchases, which according to the estimations presented could result in annual savings of one billion dollars.

The joint purchase of medicines, the intended natural evolution and goal of the BPMU, is related to another initiative in process: the mapping of regional medicines manufacturing capacities with a view to producing medicines at the regional level in a near future.

For more information on the BPMU, click here and read the article on the subject.


2. The food labelling policy expands throughout the region

The second event that took place between November 29th and 30th encompassed the International Conference on Integrated Policies and Regulation for Food and Nutrition Security.

The significant reduction of hunger in South America, a product of the progressive policies promoted in recent years, has brought new health problems: childhood obesity and other forms of malnutrition. These issues have attracted the attention of international experts who, meeting in Quito, devoted two days to the discussion of integrated policies to address this new problem that has expanded in the region in an alarming way thanks to the irruption of ultra-processed foods in South America, especially among the most impoverished sectors of the population.

The policy of food labelling received much of the attention of the participants, highlighting the initiative promoted in Ecuador. This policy, still in force, involves labelling foods with different colours (similar to traffic lights) indicating the degree of health hazard related to the level of sugars, saturated fats and salt contained in that particular food. Red corresponds to high concentrations while yellow and green reflect medium and low concentrations, respectively.

In 2016, Chile implemented its own policy. In addition to an alert on foods high in fat, sugar, sodium and carbohydrates, this policy also includes the regulation of food advertising for children. Following the presentations by both countries, together with those of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, several South American delegations revealed that their countries are currently in the study process for the implementation of this type of policy.

Learn more about food labelling policy and the International Conference on Integrated Policies and Regulation for Food and Nutrition Security by clicking here.


3. Assessment of the mapping of regional medicines manufacturing capacities

On November 30th, one day after the conclusion of the workshop that shaped to the Medicines Price Bank of UNASUR, the Group on Universal Access to Medicines of UNASUR (GAUMU) met again to define the technical aspects related to the full constitution of the Medicines Price Bank of UNASUR and to assess the current status of the projects “Mapping of Regional Medicines and Health Supplies Manufacturing Capacities” and “Medicines Policies”. Both projects seek to understand the region’s capacities for developing a common policy towards the Universal Access to Medicines.


4. Strong denunciations against the pharmaceutical industry due to the access barriers to hepatitis C treatment

On December 1st, the last day of the UNASUR’s Health Week, was held the High Level Meeting on Strategies Against Hepatitis C in South America, coinciding with the World AIDS Day.

Although there are around 80 million people infected with hepatitis C worldwide (8 million in Latin America), the available treatments are so expensive that the vast majority of those affected do not have access to them. And the reason is not due to the fact that producing these drugs is extremely expensive, but to the speculation of the pharmaceutical industry.

The Secretary General of UNASUR, Ernesto Samper; the Colombian Minister of Health, Alejandro Gaviria; the Ecuadorian Minister of Health, Margarita Guevara; the ISAGS Executive Director, Carina Vance and the DNDi Director, Bernard Pecoul were among the speakers that exposed the abusive strategies and policies, as well as the excessive ambition of the pharmaceutical industry.

Read the full article with all the statements by clicking here.


5. Launch of “Health to the South”

The new trilingual ISAGS publication, Health to the South, was also launched. It is available online here. The first edition includes articles on the approval of the new structure of ISAGS; an analysis on the phenomenon of migrations in relation to Health in South America; an article by Carina Vance on the #NiUnaMenos movement; an analysis of the challenges, achievements and shortcomings of Habitat III; a note on the South American participation in the Global South-South Cooperation Expo; and an advance on the validation of the Regional Plan for Cervical Cancer Control.


Final words

It was, in short, an excellent closing of a hectic year for South American politics, focusing on health and strengthening regional integration mechanisms.

As UNASUR Secretary-General Ernesto Samper said, it was also an excellent opportunity to present results to the ordinary citizen and demonstrate that the union “is more than a rhetoric of heroes” and that the work of the bloc “has an impact on the daily life of all South Americans”.