The UK government’s Department for International Development has launched a new medicines access alliance, which aims to save the lives of 10.5 million people in the developing world each year by 2015.

The Medicines Transparency Alliance (MeTA) has been set up by DFID, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Bank, international institutions, governments, civil society and businesses to improve access to affordable essential medicines in developing countries, in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies.

"Too many people die needlessly because they can't get the medicines they need. There are currently two billion people around the world who do not have access to affordable medical services. A lot of medicines are not affordable, they are of poor quality or they are simply not available,” said Douglas Alexander, the UK Secretary of State for International Development.

"The problems of price, quality and availability can be tackled by improving transparency and access to information. MeTA will provide citizens, health care workers and others with information to challenge corruption, excessive pricing and waste. We now have a common approach and by working together millions of lives could be saved,” he added.

The partners point out that up to a third of medicines on the market in developing countries are counterfeit and that the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) reported recently that a third of malaria drugs sold in six African cities either did not contain high enough levels of active ingredient, or did not dissolve properly.

Other problems affecting the supply of medicines in developing countries can include the failure of those who run the health care systems to purchase sufficient quantities of the right drugs, whether through lack of funding or organization. Moreover, when the correct medicines have been bought, there may be problems distributing them to health centres and pharmacies, or they may be stolen by corrupt officials and criminals, who may also buy counterfeits. The effect is always the same; the poorest are hit hardest, say the partners.

"Transparency in medicine regulation and pricing is increasingly being recognised as improving the quality of health services,” commented WHO assistant director-general Dr Carissa Etienne, while Andreas Seiter, senior health specialist, pharmaceuticals, at the World Bank added that MeTA provides “an excellent opportunity to broaden the discussion on sound pharmaceutical policies and good governance in the sector. The World Bank is looking forward to contributing to the success of MeTA, keeping in mind the ultimate goal of improving access to effective, safe and affordable medicines."

The MeTA initiative will initially be piloted in Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, the Philippines, Jordan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Peru over a two-year period. The model will then be revised, based on lessons learned, to enable other countries to join the scheme.