Weill Cornell Medical College students help change global health policy

In a move to improve global public health, Weill Cornell Medical College students have helped place a lifesaving heart disease drug onto the World Health Organization's (WHO) list of essential medicines.

This list is a guideline for developing countries to choose which high-priority drugs should be supplied to their citizens inexpensively.

Students from Weill Cornell's chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) answered the charge of Dr. David Skorton, President of Cornell University, and Dr. Antonio M. Gotto Jr., dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, to "seek new strategies for Cornell to advance public health" across the globe.

"I am extremely proud that the students at Weill Cornell Medical College have had such an admirable influence on global health policy," says Dr. Skorton, who is also a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics. "Such actions by our students show the promise of their future leadership."

"Adding this medicine to the list of essential medicines represents an exceptional achievement by our students," says Dr. Gotto, an internationally renowned expert in heart disease prevention, who served as the senior advisor for the project. "Because of the students' success, over 150 national governments that work with WHO will be encouraged to recognize heart disease as a serious health concern deserving of great medical attention."

UAEM comprises a national group of students whose goal is to determine how universities can help ensure that biomedical products, including medicines, are made more accessible in poor countries and further the amount of research conducted on neglected diseases affecting the poor.

"For years, it was thought that heart disease was a concern of affluent countries. But, today, nearly 80 percent of all deaths due to heart disease occur in the developing world," says Sandeep Kishore, an MD-PhD student at Weill Cornell Medical College who helped spearhead the initiative with UAEM. "Increasingly, 'Western' high-fat diets, tobacco use and urbanization have helped make heart disease a bigger killer than 'The Big Three' -- HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria -- combined."

Kishore and Ben Herbstman, UAEM members, petitioned WHO that simvastatin (Zocor) -- originally manufactured by Merck -- be added to the list. Simvastatin was selected based on its worldwide availability, cost-effectiveness and the interest of generic firms in producing it. Such statin medicines have been shown to lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) levels, commonly known as "bad cholesterol," by 25-30 percent in individuals at high-risk for heart disease.

Last month, the students from UAEM -- with the assistance of medical librarians from Weill Cornell's Samuel J. Wood Library & C.V. Starr Biomedical Information Center -- were successful in their efforts to get a generic version of Zocor included on the list of essential medicines. Now, the United Nations and other philanthropic foundations can donate large numbers of the statin drug to the national pharmaceutical inventories of developing countries.

Furthermore, generic versions of the medicine will be sold at a fraction of their original price tag. The drug will cost as little as $40 per year per person -- 10 cents a day -- down from nearly $1,200 a couple of years ago.

The announcement comes on the heels of Cornell University's new Africa Initiative, a university-wide movement to promote sub-Saharan African development and health.

The Weill Cornell chapter of UAEM has hosted an ongoing series of global health events. On June 15, the former CEO of Merck, Inc., Dr. Roy Vagelos, will present a lecture titled "Corporations Can and Should Do Social Good" in a seminar exploring new academic-pharmaceutical alliances to increase access to medicines worldwide.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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