On the eve of World Hepatitis Day, a list with the signatures of more than 1200 people from 40 countries asking for access to hepatitis C treatment was presented to the World Health Organization (WHO) and to the pharmaceutical companies Merck and F. Hoffmann-La Roche.
WHO estimates that 130–170 million people across the world are currently living with chronic hepatitis C, and that an additional two million are infected with the hepatitis C virus every year. Because of extremely high drug prices, access to hepatitis C treatment is very limited; although the virus is curable, WHO estimates that 350,000 people die every year from hepatitis C-related liver diseases.
The cost of pegylated interferon (PEG-INF), the key component of today’s most effective hepatitis C treatment, makes it inaccessible for the majority of those who need it. Merck and Roche, the pharmaceutical giants that produce PEG-INF, keep the price at levels unaffordable for both individual patients and for governments. For example, the average cost of a 48-week treatment course in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is 15,000 USD. Meanwhile, most countries in the region have low- and middle-income economies, where average household monthly wages and salaries per capita range from 277 USD in Ukraine to 564 USD in Kazakhstan.
High prices result in very low levels of treatment access in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Georgia, hepatitis C treatment is covered by the government budget only for those who are imprisoned (following a decision of the European Court of Human Rights). A few hundred additional patients are receiving hepatitis C treatment with the support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In Kyrgyzstan, neither the government nor international donors cover treatment, and patients need to pay from their own pockets. A 48-week treatment course in Kyrgyzstan costs about 13,000 USD, while GDP per capita is only 800 USD.
With the aim of mobilizing communities living with HCV and their allies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and worldwide, in July 2012 the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) launched the Hepatitis C Treatment Waiting List (www.harm-reduction.org/petitions/) to hold governments and the pharmaceutical industry accountable. In less than a month, more than 1200 signatures were collected from 40 countries.
The Hepatitis C Treatment Waiting List shows governments, Merck, and Roche the ever-increasing demand for effective and accessible hepatitis C treatment. More than a symbolic act of solidarity with people living with hepatitis C, the list represents a collective action directed at those who make decisions about the lives and health of the signees and their communities. The waiting list will be used in open dialogue with governments and pharmaceutical companies, on the national level and internationally. Signatures will continue to be collected until World Hepatitis Day 2013, with a target of 1,000,000 signatures.
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