What Are Essential Medicines?

Marlene Garcia

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines essential medicines as drugs necessary for basic health care, along with medication to treat priority diseases. The WHO compiles a list of drugs that fall under these categories while working to make high-quality medicine accessible and affordable worldwide, especially in poor countries. Access to medicine would likely alleviate suffering and prevent premature death in some regions.

The World Health Organization lists several drugs as essential medicines that are needed to maintain basic health care and to treat so-called "priority" diseases.
The World Health Organization lists several drugs as essential medicines that are needed to maintain basic health care and to treat so-called "priority" diseases.

A committee periodically updates the list of medicines after reviewing the latest research regarding the safety and effectiveness of various drugs. Certain medications might be added to or deleted from the list, including specific drugs used to treat adult disease and medication designed for children. Variations on essential medicines also might exist for different regions of the world to address each country’s priority health challenges.

Drugs used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and malaria, for example, might be more critical in Africa, where these diseases pose serious health risks. Some poor countries face problems with counterfeit drugs, false labeling, or substandard medicine that proves ineffective. The rural nature of some areas typically makes distribution of essential medicines difficult.

Medicine might represent the largest expense for a family in some areas. This might stem from unregulated costs of essential medicines and huge price fluctuations on a global level. Many of these undeveloped or developing countries devote few resources to public health care and do not embrace access to affordable drugs as a basic human right. The WHO has estimated that one-third of the world population might be unable to afford essential medicines.

Efforts to increase availability of drugs began in 1977, when the WHO released its first list of essential medicines that included 208 individual drugs. As certain diseases became more prevalent, such as cancer, diabetes, and AIDS, new medications to treat these conditions were added. Over the years, some countries adopted drug policies that mirror those outlined by the WHO, including efforts to evaluate drug quality and regulate cost.

Birth control and hormonal drugs appear on the list of essential medicines to address reproductive issues. These include condoms and intrauterine devices to prevent unwanted pregnancy and drugs to treat infertility. Some hormonal drugs considered essential medicines treat other health conditions, such as thyroid disorders or growth problems.

Hundreds of other medicines are listed that health organizations believe should be available worldwide. They range from anesthetics to perform surgery to simple pain relievers like aspirin. Gastrointestinal disease, infection, heart disease, and palliative care drugs also make the list. Vaccines to prevent disease represent important drugs in some countries.

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