fter a delay of almost ten years with several attempts to derail or dilute the life-saving move, the Bill to implement Prof. Senake Bibile’s National Medicinal Drugs Policy (NMDP) is finally in shape and will be presented to Parliament next week. It will be one of the healthiest gifts to the people of Sri Lanka to mark the 67th Independence Day in the new Maithripala era of good governance, democracy and social justice.
Even last week, as reported in the Daily Mirror, there were subtle plots apparently by transnational giants known as Big Pharma to delete vital clauses from the Bill when it was sent to the Legal Draftsman’s Department to be given the final touches.
The Draft sent to the Department by a committee of experts had laid down five conditions for the registration of medicinal drugs. They are quality, safety, efficacy, the cost of the drugs and the need for them. But someone for some reason had deleted the vital cost factor, which transnational pharmaceutical corporations had been objecting to.
Another vital clause deleted related to the National Medicinal Drugs Regulatory Authority (NMDRA) which will review all the drugs and reduce the number from the current figure of more than 15,000 to about 1,000, as outlined in Prof. Bibile’s essential medicines concept. The original draft said those appointed to this Authority should clearly declare whether they had any conflict of interest such as any links with pharmaceutical giants. This conflict of interest clause had also been deleted at the Legal Draftsman’s Department. The Legal Draftsman had claimed the ‘conflict of interest’ clause had been deleted because it was not properly explained. But most people and especially professionals know what it means. We are hearing hundreds of shocking allegations of mega-corruption among politicians and top officials -- the latest being this week’s allegation about what happened to 100 kilos of gold. Similarly there have been allegations of corruption among professionals including medical consultants with ‘conflict of interest’ issues relating to sponsorships, scholarships, and luxury pleasure trips for the families.
Another clause deleted from the original Bill relates to generic prescribing. The committee’s draft had said that doctors were required to write the generic names of drugs along with any brand names prescribed. Doctors who fail to do this would be liable to a fine. This clause also had been deleted. But the committee led by Prof. Lal Jayakody, Head of the Department of Pharmacology in the Colombo University’s Medical Faculty, insisted that these and other deleted clauses in the Bill should be replaced to make it effective so that the people would have access to quality medicinal drugs at affordable prices.
Prof. Bibile’s essential medicines concept implemented from 1971 was scrapped in 1976 under heavy pressure from the transnational pharmaceutical giants. Discouraged and dejected, Prof. Bibile – regarded worldwide as one of the great prophets of modern medicine -- went to the Caribbean where he got a United Nations post. But he died in 1978 at the age of 55 with some health action groups still insisting that the circumstances of his sudden death were suspicious.
The new Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne -- a key player in the ‘yahapalana’ administration of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – has pledged the new law will be implemented from March as a major step towards restoring a health service where the well-being of patients is given top priority. But Big Pharma is not likely to give up. It is one of the top three biggest profit-making businesses in the world, along with the arms trade and the agro-chemicals business. Thus the health action groups should remain alert to ensure that the full benefit of Prof. Bibile’s vision flows down to all the people, and especially the poor. If Prof. Bibile was killed, then those who killed him need to know that even if they kill a person they cannot kill his or her vision and dream, just as the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says.
Worldwide poverty is known to be the most widespread disease and hunger the biggest killer, therefore the restoration of a patient-friendly health service will play a vital role in poverty alleviation