Opinion article |

Patents and Medicines in Peru

Peru is one of the poorest countries of South America with an estimated 26 million population (2000) and a gross domestic product (GDP) of USD 2180 per capita. As in most countries of the region, a minority of the population (5%) holds an important part of the GDP (50.4%). Indicators of poverty remain high with about 54.1% of the population living in conditions of poverty, 14.8% in conditions of extreme poverty, and around 35% of the population with no access to electricity and safe water. Although the health situation has improved a lot over the last 30 years, Peru still has a high infant and maternal mortality rate. As to infectious diseases, Peru has one of the highest incidence rate of tuberculosis in Latin America with an increasing resistance to available drugs, and the HIV prevalence among adults is estimated to be ranging between 0.35% and 0.5%, which correspond to about 76.000 persons living with HIV/AIDS.

In 1998, the World Health Organization has estimated that about 40% of the population did not have access to essential medicines . Of course, this is due to a combination of economical, geographical and cultural factors but prices of medicines in Peru are extremely high compared to the buying power of the population and to prices in other regions of the world. This is likely to be a consequence of the complete liberalization of prices of medicines that took place at the end of the 80’s following Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreover, most of drug expenditures are out of pocket as only 23,5% of the population benefit from national or private social security.

The introduction of patent protection for pharmaceutical products which dates back to 1991 is likely to worsen access to medicines by the poor in the coming years. This measure was undertaken on a regional scale as Peru is a Member of the Andean Community (CAN), a regional free trade area including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. However, the story of patent protection of pharmaceuticals in the region is interesting because the Andean Community is one of the few regions in the world where policy makers have resisted strong pressures from the pharmaceutical industry and developed countries to have a patent system overly protecting patent holders at the expense of the public interest. This can be observed through the various past and current measures in the regional patent law intended to safeguard the public interest against the global tendency of privatisation of public goods such as medicines.