CARACAS, Friday March 18, 2011 | Update
Angel Fernández / The Vital Role of Medical Innovation in Latin America

By identifying top health priorities and creating an innovation-friendly regulatory environment, the public and private sectors can work together to expedite the process of drug development and approval to get new treatments and vaccines into the hands of patients faster

Friday March 18, 2011  09:37 AM

The recent flooding in Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela has dramatically increased the risk for infectious diseases such as gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. The resulting landslides have stricken over 1.5 million people, forcing many to go without needed healthcare or shelter from contagion.

Notwithstanding the impact of floods or other natural disasters, the World Health Organization estimates that in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2030, 150 thousand people will die from infectious and parasitic diseases (communicable) and 2 million from cardiovascular disease and diabetes alone.

Scientific innovation holds the promise of solving many of these health problems. However, that promise can only be realized through a shared commitment between the private sector, which develops innovative solutions to improve healthcare, and the public sector, which can provide an environment conducive to private innovation.

Healthcare companies like my company, MSD, recognize that healthcare is about leveraging our innovative heritage and critical mission to broaden access to medicines and vaccines to help improve life expectancy. The most effective way to make a difference in Latin America is to recognize where the unmet medical needs exist and stoke private, academic and public sector collaboration in the search for effective solutions.

By identifying top health priorities and creating an innovation-friendly regulatory environment, the public and private sectors can work together to expedite the process of drug development and approval to get new treatments and vaccines into the hands of patients faster.

In fact, over recent years, MSD has launched several projects to help address Latin America's healthcare needs.

For instance, there's MSD's Product Development Laboratory in Mexico City. This state-of-the-art facility houses research and development operations focused on bringing to market new formulations of existing medicines considering the demographics and economic reality of the region.

Take asthma, for example. Worldwide, an estimated 300 million people are afflicted with the condition with prevalence increasing especially among children.
There are many effective asthma therapies formulated for adults but few for children. In the Product Development Laboratory, researchers are reformulating asthma medicines for administration in children.

Combining several mechanisms of action into a single tablet for the treatment of co-existent conditions like asthma and allergies can also provide economic savings and convenience for the patient and promote adherence for better health outcomes.

The Product Development Laboratory is tapping into our vast research legacy to innovate new ways for addressing the pressing healthcare needs of the people of Latin America.

MSD is also conducting proof of concept research with an oral antifungal called posaconazole for the treatment of Chagas disease, which affects as many as 8 to 11 million people in Latin America.

These efforts aren't solely the work of MSD, though. Across the region, MSD's efforts are part of innovative collaborations that involve governments and other key partners to bring healthcare solutions to those who need it most.

Consider the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP). Established in 1987 and currently active in Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela, this initiative is closer than ever to eliminating the transmission of onchocerciasis, a leading cause of preventable blindness. An estimated 360,000 people in Latin America are currently threatened by this disease.

MDP's mission is simple: distribute the needed doses of its anti-onchocerciasis drug Mectizan to populations at risk.

MDP, one of the longest running programs of its kind in the world, reaches more than 100 million people each year, and is helping the Pan American Health Organization reach its goal of eliminating onchocerciasis in Latin America by 2012. In 2007 the Colombian government announced interruption of transmission of this disease becoming the first country in the World to achieve this goal.

This effort has been successful thanks to the commitment from governments, international organizations, local communities and the private sector. And it proves that a collaborative approach to the region's health challenges can work.

There are ample reasons for us to invest in Latin America, but the region needs to stay competitive with other countries that are improving their investment climates. It is estimated that key emerging markets are expected to drive nearly 90 percent of the pharmaceutical industry's growth between now and 2015.

Latin American governments can do more to attract foreign R&D investment. Intellectual property protections can be further improved to secure the financial rewards for developing effective new treatments. Policymakers should also consider expanding tax incentives for investments in new research. And more needs to be done to foster continuous exchange of knowledge and innovation between the public and private sectors for the benefit of patients.

Angel Fernández is Sr. Vice President Merck and President of MSD Latin America

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