Yalies talk affordable drugs

Eleven Yalies traveled to Boston this weekend to join about 300 college students working to bring lifesaving drugs to those too poor to afford them.

Yale undergraduate and graduate students attended the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines conference in order to discuss strategies for increasing access to these drugs in the developing world. The forum, held at Harvard University, was designed to convince universities worldwide to utilize new drug research and distribution methods to aid the underprivileged.

“What was really exciting about this conference was seeing the hundreds and hundreds of students that had traveled so far to be there,” Shayna Strom ’02 LAW ’09, co-coordinator of the University’s chapter of UAEM, said. “It was an incredible moment that shows how big this movement has become.”

Attendance at the conference — which featured students from nearly 50 universities and numerous foreign countries — has doubled from last year, UAEM director Ethan Guillen said. Participants discussed possible national actions and collective policies, and representatives from each school presented their chapter’s recent achievements to audience members.

In their presentation, Yale students focused on increasing access provisions and continuing agreements between the University and pharmaceutical companies that would promote wider access to essential medicines.

“Basically, universities use public funding for drug testing and research, and the medicines that they develop are then licensed out to pharmaceutical companies that inflate the prices to increase profit,” Govind Rangrass ’08, a member of Yale’s chapter of UAEM, said. “We’re making sure these medicines are accessible.”

Guillen said the organization was initially conceived at Yale, when Amy Kapczynski LAW ’03 convinced the University to allow generic drug companies to produce its new HIV treatment drug, d4T. The generic drugs cost approximately $55 for a year of treatment, as opposed to the $1,500 charged by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Rangrass said. He said the cheaper product made it possible for HIV/AIDS victims in South Africa to afford the drug.

Since then, Rangrass said, UAEM has persuaded dozens of universities around the country to adopt humanitarian principles when researching and distributing drugs.

“For me, this conference was all about realizing that Yale students aren’t alone on this issue,” Strom said. “We were able to come together and tap our wisdom collectively.”

The organization also hopes to increase drug researchers’ focus on commonly neglected diseases. The people who suffer from these diseases are often the ones who are too poor to afford medication, which makes producing the drugs less profitable, UAEM members said.

Students refer to this phenomenon as the “90-10 gap,” since 10 percent of drug research is concentrated on 90 percent of today’s most harmful diseases.

Ami Parekh JD/MD ’09, president of Yale’s UAEM chapter, said one of her favorite parts of the conference was a testimonial by Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, the former head of Doctors Without Borders Access to Essential Medicines campaign.

“It was really inspirational to hear what she’s seen on the ground — people that she’s seen die because they didn’t have access to proper health care,” Parekh said.

This year marks the fourth time that UAEM has hosted a national conference.

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