Not all cancers kill, but the public understanding is that the disease is nothing short of a death sentence. So the news that the government is undertaking a price analysis of around 70 anti-cancer drugs, following which it could choose to regulate the price of at least some of them, comes as a potential lifesaver for sufferers of a disease whose morbidity can be curbed substantially by early detection and treatment.
The trigger has come from a recent department of industrial policy and promotion discussion paper showing that anti-cancer drugs are nearly inaccessible to the 2.5 million cancer patients in the country. However, it’s apparent that the government will need more than just noble intentions to regulate cancer drug prices under the existing 15-year-old Drugs (Prices Control) Order.
Still, while the government is at it, it should also seriously consider devising a comprehensive national cancer plan. By now it’s widely accepted that the generics on the World Health Organization’s list of 17 essential drugs for cancer therapy can provide effective and less expensive treatment.
Given that cancer could afflict 16 million new patients globally every year by 2020, up from 10 million in 2000, and that 70% of fresh cases may be in the developing world, it’s pragmatic for India to stay away from expensive new drugs being licensed at frequent intervals and having only marginal clinical benefits. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has, in fact, ruled against the use of some expensive new anti-cancer drugs on these grounds.
India should set up a multidisciplinary taskforce, involving oncologists, economists, clinical pharmacologists and others to generate evidence-based local data that will assist in formulating a cost-effective national cancer treatment plan that will aid practitioners across the country with well-defined guidelines. That might even mean reassessing the cost and efficacy of existing treatment regimens and, to some extent, altering them to suit the local population’s clinical response as well as the ability to afford the therapy.
Alongside, India should proactively engage with global cancer alliances, health organizations and even commercial entities to upgrade cancer care.
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