Innovating to the last mile: How access to medicines can end epidemics for good

Mother Nasra Ally and child wait outside a clinic in the Northern Zonal Area of Tanzania’s Dar es Salam District as a truck offloads medicine directly to the clinic. They await medical care that was not easily accessible prior to the launch of Project Last Mile. Photo by: MSD Coca Cola

This week marks the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. The conference will unite 18,000 people from 180 countries with the goal of advancing plans to end AIDS as a crisis. This goal is incredibly important in the post-2015 global development agenda, particularly as it will influence global health, economies and social wellbeing more broadly. To ensure achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and save up to 21 million lives, we must complete this “last mile” — ending the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria for good.

Ensuring easy access to health facilities and medicines will be key. Without proper prevention and treatment, disease containment is impossible. Global health programs have made great strides against these epidemics, saving more than 17 million lives to date. We now have an opportunity to capitalize on this progress, and increased access to medicines will play a central role.

One of the major ways to increase access to medicines is through innovation of procurement and supply chain systems. By streamlining the systems through which medicines travel from manufacturers, through country health systems and to the patients themselves, we can reach those most at risk and save more lives.

Innovations are underway to improve global health systems, through both the improvement of on-the-ground logistics management and the development of high-tech procurement solutions. At the Global Fund we are working closely with the private sector to bring corporate best practices to global health systems, streamlining processes to increase access to crucial medicines and supplies.

Bringing medicines to the world

An estimated 2 billion people lack access to essential medicines. Here’s how the global health sector is helping address the issue. A Devex #Access2Meds feature.

For instance, the Global Fund is partnering with Coca-Cola and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Project Last Mile. This project helps African governments connect the dots among logistical challenges, from supply chain management to proper refrigeration and storage of essential medicines. After all, if people can easily access a bottle of Coke, shouldn’t they be able to access lifesaving medicines as well?

This program has had significant impact. As of 2012, two years after launching in Tanzania, Project Last Mile supported the delivery of 120 essential medicines to 5,000 health facilities. Before, medicines were only making it to 500 health facilities. Now, nearly 20 million people — nearly half the population of Tanzania — have access to those facilities. This public-private partnership shows just how many lives can be changed for the better with increased access to medicines.

Before the last mile can be run in the race to end epidemics, health facilities must be able to effectively procure the supplies needed to keep their communities healthy and safe. To help tackle delays and costs in the procurement of health commodities, the Global Fund recently launched, an innovative e-marketplace. streamlines procurement operations, optimizes costs, and supports countries that are transitioning out of Global Fund financing by providing continued access to affordable prices for commodities to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. For example, when a Global Fund grantee is researching commodities, gives them instant access to price comparisons, estimates lead time required for orders, and assesses quality across suppliers. Previously, the process could take up to 21 days to place an order.

Cost savings for countries placing orders through this e-marketplace are expected to be tremendous — the Global Fund conservatively estimates that will save $250 million for implementers of Global Fund grants over the next five years. Fewer costs, combined with faster results, will translate to additional lives saved.

Ensuring better access to medicines will take coordinated teamwork from implementing countries, donors, private sector partners and on-the-ground implementers to improve procurement and supply chain management systems. Furthermore, the Global Fund partnership’s continued ability to improve these systems will be greatly affected by the funding pledged during its Fifth Replenishment Conference, taking place in Montreal, Canada, in September. The return on investment in the Global Fund is significant: for every $100 million contributed, 2.3 million HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria infections can be averted, and $2.2 billion will be spurred in long-term economic gains.

The time to act is now — through strategic funding to increase access to medicines, we can run the last mile, help achieve the SDGs, and ultimately save and improve millions of lives.

Access to Medicines is an online conversation to explore work being done to guarantee access to lifesaving medicines, where solutions are still needed. Over three weeks Devex, along with our partner Management Sciences for Health, will analyze and amplify the discussion on global access to medicines and examine the future of medicine access for individuals at the last mile, in a way that saves lives, empowers communities and builds resilient health systems. Join us as we look towards the future, tagging #access2meds and @Devex to share your thoughts.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Christopher Game

    Christopher Game is the chief procurement officer at the Global Fund, where he oversees the organization's approach to strategic sourcing and procuring of global health commodities for greater value and impact. He currently directs Procurement for Impact, a Global Fund initiative to set a new standard for global health procurement. He has previously worked for Novartis, Sandoz, Actavis and Abbott Laboratories.