New Delhi: Tuberculosis (TB) patients may get to access free TB drugs from private pharmacies soon, something they get only from government-run centres now. The Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB), India’s highest drug advisory body, will consider relaxing the rules in this respect under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act at its 22 January meeting.

Currently, TB patients get free drugs only from primary health centres, government hospitals and Community Directly Observed Treatment, Short Course (DOTS) providers. Allowing private pharmacies to stock and dispense these free drugs is expected to increase the coverage of TB treatment.

The proposal to dispense free anti-TB drugs at private pharmacies came up at a 28 December meeting of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) with the health ministry’s central TB division, where it was suggested that government increase efforts to improve the coverage and increase the access of medicines.

“Keeping in view the high incidence of TB cases, it was felt that there was need to make the accessibility of TB drugs better. We are of the view that TB drugs should be allowed to be dispensed free of cost by private pharmacists. Since they come under Schedule H1, it will become mandatory for the pharmacists to maintain records of such drugs," director general of health services, Jagdish Prasad said.

It has been proposed to amend rule 65 (18) of Drugs and Cosmetics Act by inserting a proviso for stocking and distribution of anti-TB drugs through Indian government’s Revised National TB Control Program (RNTCP) in private pharmacies. “The DTAB may deliberate and give its suggestions in the matter for necessary amendments in the rules in its upcoming meeting," said an official on condition of anonymity. 

According to health ministry estimates, TB causes almost 420,000 deaths in India every year and 2.8 million TB patients seek treatment in the private sector.

The national TB control programme aims to establish linkages with the private sector which can extend free drugs, counselling and other patient support services.

“We have a goal of providing universal access to quality care to all TB patients. The vision of the government is for a TB-free India through achieving universal access. The implementation of this concept is expected to allow all TB patients to have early access to quality treatment services," added Prasad.

According to two officials in the health ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, even though the state and central governments provide free drugs and treatment to all TB patients, only around half of all TB patients avail themselves of these facilities. “The initiative of easy accessibility of TB drugs will also help removing the stigma among that section of society which is hesitant to approach government-run centres for taking medicines," added the official cited above. 

India continues to have the highest number of TB cases in the world, according to the latest Global TB Report 2017 released by the World Health Organization.

In 2016, there were an estimated 10.4 million new TB cases worldwide. According to the report, seven countries accounted for 64% of the total burden, with India having the maximum number of TB patients, followed by Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria and South Africa, the report revealed.