India - the 'world's pharmacy' - is failing its own people

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India - the ‘world’s pharmacy’ - is failing its own people

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara


A chemist shop in India. India is proud to sell generic drugs to people around the world, but they cannot help Indians in the same way. Herry Lawford under a Creative Commons Licence

‘India isn’t just making the world’s drugs, it’s taking them too,’ New Internationalist co-editor Hazel Healy wrote to me.

It made me think. I’ve read and written about Indian pharmaceutical drugs since I started writing for New Internationalist in 1991. Sometimes with pride. Sometimes with no hope.

People have said India is the 'pharmacy of the world'.

In 1991, I wrote proudly that the Indian government was fighting to stop patents (which would allow pharmaceutical companies to increase prices of patented drugs). It was difficult for me to explain the problems with GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the WTO (World Trade Organization). I finally told our doctor friends, ‘what it means to us, is that drug prices will go up so much, it will be impossible to treat the poor.’

That got everyone’s attention.

I was proud that Indian pharma companies were producing anti-retroviral drugs to help Africans with HIV/AIDs much more cheaply than the big international companies. We won this very big fight. Our pharmaceutical companies were also making a lot of money – they were not just being kind – but their profit was less.

Former US President Bill Clinton praised the Indian generic pharma companies eg. Cipla and Ranbaxy. They make cheap drugs for people with HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Clinton Foundation then organised partnerships with the generic companies to sell cheaper drugs ($79 per person per year, compared to $10,000 per person per year in 2000). They would have saved millions of African lives if they had done this earlier.

But it’s terrible that there are many drug companies in India (with no licences), which make medicines that can kill people. I get very angry when my husband buys insulin in an emergency from a different pharmacy and it makes his sugar-level go very high. Maybe it wasn’t kept cold or is from a bad supplier. So his diabetes is out of control. But no-one in India cares about our citizens. A friend in Bangalore had to go to hospital and almost lost her leg because she took fake insulin. The company gave her money as compensation if she promised not to tell anyone about the case. It’s expensive to keep a secret.

We don’t have enough regulations. The public buy fake medicine. If educated older people with experience can buy fake drugs, what about the poor and the people who cannot read? We must stop companies making banned drugs which people still buy. Some drugs are very dangerous eg. one anti-psychotic which has 2 drugs from the same class – both of them can be very toxic and cause sudden death.

Medical professionals are worried and try to fight the corruption. But the companies that make the drugs put pressure on the government to not change anything. So nothing has changed.

In 1987, I read about LOCOST, a company that started in Baroda, Gujarat in 1983. It helps poor people by making only very necessary, quality drugs at the lowest possible prices. So it is possible to find solutions. We need more medical professionals to want to fight to clean up the pharmaceutical industry. The government and other worried groups together can do it. But will they?

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).