Cancer is the new HIV: War over treatment looms
SA has the cheapest HIV treatment in the world. Activists want the same for cancer
“Cancer is the new HIV,” activists said at an event on Wednesday, announcing a plan to get better and cheaper treatment for cancer, similar to a campaign for better access to Aids drugs in the early 2000s.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the Cancer Alliance, other NGOs and Section 27 are gearing up for a fight, saying their aim was to challenge the lack of cancer care in the state sector and take on drug companies about the price of cancer drugs.
In the early 2000s, TAC activists challenged drug companies’ high prices for HIV treatment and took the government to court for not providing them.
SA now has the cheapest HIV drug prices in the world, costing the government less than R100 a month per person. “Cancer is the new HIV. Like HIV, cancer is showing up inequality,” Mark Heywood, one of the founders of the TAC and former head of Section 27, said on Wednesday.
At the beginning of the century, poor people could not access HIV medicines. “It is as stark as 20 years ago. If you are poor, you will die [of cancer]. If you are middle-class, you will struggle to get treatment. If you are rich, you can manage it.”
“After the elections, this must change,” said Heywood, adding he realised there were still challenges with HIV treatment as well that needed to be addressed.
He was speaking at a meeting between cancer groups, a trade union, the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27 in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
He said there was likely to be a new health minister after the May elections.
“We got on top of HIV. Whoever is the minister of health next, the same prioritisation must be given to cancer [by him].
“Cancer care is broken,” he said, referring to poor diagnosis, long waits for treatment in the state sector and expensive drugs.
Last year, the TAC received an e-mail from the husband of a woman who had metastatic melanoma, a type of skin cancer that spreads extremely fast and had already spread.
The medicine that could have been able to treat this would have cost of R1.8m for several months’ treatment. Her medical aid would not pay that amount.
This drug was registered with SAHPRA, the medicines regulator.
There is a cheaper drug – a bioequivalent that is similar to a generic for newer biological medicines – that cost R770,000 and is available abroad. But the woman was denied a licence three times to import the drug by the regulator, because the original drug, costing R1.8m, was in the country.
Eventually, the TAC got the regulator to change its decision and allow her to import the cheaper version. Heywood said regulators are “afraid of the drug companies”. “Drug companies make a killing. They kill people by making a killing. Cancer drugs are so outrageously priced. They make the pricing of Aids drugs look mild in some ways.”
Head of the Cancer Alliance Salome Meyer, who organised the meeting, said the World Health Organisation had said affordability must be something regulators look at when regulating medicines.
Meyer said: “The majority of people do not have access to affordable cancer medicines. Cancer medicines are far more expensive than HIV and TB drugs are.”
Meyer is getting activists and lawyers together to take on companies and lack of access to treatment.
Lebohang Panyeko, the national organiser from SA Federation of Trade Unions ( Saftu), said the unions would support the TAC, the Cancer Alliance and other cancer organisations in their fight for access to cancer treatment.
“As Saftu, we are in full support of this campaign.”