With up to $50 billion spent every year on pharmaceutical products and recent estimates showing that as much as 25 per cent of procured medicines can be lost to fraud, bribery and other corrupt practices, the United Nations health agency today launched a new initiative to help governments combat corruption.
“Corruption is a worldwide problem, rife in high- and low-income countries alike, and no country should feel embarrassed to talk about it,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director of Medicines Policy and Standards Hans Hogerzeil said of the scheme to set up a group of anti-corruption and medicines experts from international institutions and countries to promote greater transparency in regulation and procurement.
“Low income countries are the most vulnerable, and they are the ones we will initially support in promoting more transparent, money-saving tactics,” he added at a two-day meeting beginning in Geneva today to set out strategies and set up the initiative.
Before reaching the patients who need them, medicines change hands several times in the complex production and distribution chain, providing ample opportunity for corruption, WHO noted. A recent report by Transparency International, a global civil society organization, revealed that in one country, the value of two out of three medicines supplied through procurement was lost to corruption and fraud in hospitals.
“This is an aberration when you think that poor populations struggle with the double bind of a high burden of disease and low access to medical products,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals Howard Zucker said. “Countries need to deal with this problem and ensure that the precious resources devoted to health are being well spent.”
Apart from the loss of resources and the danger posed to patients’ lives, corrupt practices also allow the entry into the medicines chain of counterfeit and substandard products, further endangering the health of communities, WHO noted.
Corruption occurs at different stages of the chain and may take on different forms ranging from bribery of government officials to register medicines without the required information and deliberate delays by officials to solicit bribes, to favouritism rather than professional merit in selecting members of registration committees and thefts and embezzlement in the distribution chain, including in health care facilities.
To combat the problem, WHO plans to strengthen regulatory authorities and procurement practices by stimulating legislative reform to establish laws against corruption and appropriate enforcement and punitive measures, and promoting standardized systems of checks and balances to prevent abuse by making publicly available criteria for selecting regulatory and procurement staff and medical products.
The agency will also encourage ethical practices through behaviour change activities and staff training.