The World Health Organisation has launched a campaign which calls on drugmakers to tailor their medicines to the needs of children and sell them at a reasonable price.

Launching the ‘Make Medicines Child Size’ campaign in London, the WHO said that it is targeting a range of drugs, including antibiotics, asthma and pain treatments, that need to be better tailored for youngsters, especially combination treatments. Hans Hogerzeil, director of medicines policy and standards at the organisation noted that in industrialised societies more than half of the children are prescribed medicines dosed for adults and not authorised for use in the little ones.

In developing countries, he noted that the problem is compounded by lower access to medicines and the WHO has called for further R&D of combination pills for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, plus “appropriate child therapy for a number of neglected tropical diseases”. The WHO stated the stark figures that each year about 10 million children do not reach their fifth birthday and, of these, six million die of treatable conditions. They “could be saved if needed meds were readily available, safe, effective and affordable”, the organisation points out.

As part of the campaign, the agency has drawn up the first international List of Essential Medicines for Children, containing 206 products deemed safe for children that tackle priority conditions. It noted that pneumonia alone causes two million deaths in children under five each year and HIV kills 330,000 under 15. The organisation’s assistant director-general Howard Zucker said that “these illnesses can be treated but many children don't stand a chance because the medicines are either not appropriate for their age, don’t reach them or are priced too high – up to three times the price of adult drugs".

Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, said “the gap between the availability and the need for child-appropriate medicines touches wealthy as well as poor countries". She added that as “we strive for equitable access to scientific progress in health, children must be one of our top priorities.” The WHO noted that it is building an internet portal to clinical trials carried out in children and will publish the website containing that information early next year.

Combivir for infants approved in Europe
Coincidentally, the WHO statement came just GlaxoSmithKline announced that it had gained approval from the European Commission for a new indication for use in infants of its HIV combination medicine Combivir (zidovudine and lamivudine). Previously, it has only been prescribed for use in adults and children over 12. Approvals have also been granted to Epivir (lamivudine) and Ziagen (abacavir) for use in children weighing more than 14kg.

Welcoming the WHO initiative, Jean-Pierre Garnier, GSK’s chief executive, said that “despite liquid formulations of our key HIV medicines being available for use in children at a not-for-profit price to the world's poorest countries”, there remain many barriers to access effective treatment. These new scored-tablets, which are easier to store and distribute, and also less complicated to administer, “will improve the treatment of children living with this devastating disease”, he added.