The World Health Organization (WHO) has added two cancer drugs to its 2019 essential medicines list despite oncologists calling for less toxic therapies for the disease.
The two recently developed immunotherapies (nivolumab and pembrolizumab), WHO say, have delivered up to 50 per cent survival rates for advanced melanoma, a cancer that until recently was incurable.
“While several new cancer treatments have been marketed in recent years, only a few deliver sufficient therapeutic benefits to be considered essential,” the UN agency says.
“The five cancer therapies WHO added to the new Medicines List are regarded as the best in terms of survival rates to treat melanoma, lung, blood and prostate cancers.”
WHO’s Essential Medicines List and List of Essential Diagnostics are core guidance documents that help countries prioritise critical health products that should be widely available and affordable throughout health systems.
Published Wednesday, the two lists focus on cancer and other global health challenges, with an emphasis on effective solutions, smart prioritisation and optimal access for patients.
“Around the world, more than 150 countries use WHO’s Essential Medicines List to guide decisions about which medicines represent the best value for money, based on evidence and health impact,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Dr Ghebreyesus said the inclusion on this list of some of the newest and most advanced cancer drugs is a strong statement that everyone deserves access to these life-saving medicines, not just those who can afford them.
Dr Billy Njuguna, an integrative oncologist, and Dr Fredrick Chite, a medical oncologist, argued that the world should consider adopting advanced genomic solutions and genetic testing for cancer patients.
Dr Njuguna, who was before the Senate Health Committee to give his views on the proposed amendments to the Cancer Prevention Bill, said due to the toxicity and side effects of chemotherapy, including extreme nausea and vomiting, hair loss and weight loss, the world should focus on less toxic ways to manage and treat cancer.
He said the proposed diagnosis, which costs less than $500 (Sh50,000), will help identify new targets for treatment and disease prevention and to lay the scientific foundation for precision medicine for many diseases, including cancer.
“With the type of test, you will be able to identify the type of cancer a patient has, it will also tell the right medication and what not to give to the patient through precision medicine,” he said.
Dr Chite, director of the International Cancer Institute, called on researchers to come up with less toxic drugs and improve the surviving rate of patients.