Written by Linda Goler Blount, President and CEO of Black Women’s Health Imperative
The summer season is a time that many become hyper-focused on their physical appearances, but forget to give thanks for their good health that not everyone is fortunate to have. Sadly, there are many Americans regularly facing illnesses with no direct cure. But in recent decades, diseases that were once a death sentence have evolved into manageable chronic illnesses through innovative treatments and medical breakthroughs. This is especially true for Black Americans. For many in the Black community, basic healthcare and preventative programs have been out of reach for generations, increasing the likelihood of fatal diseases and unhealthy lifestyles among Black Americans. However, the development of and access to new wellness programs, health incentives and medical breakthroughs are changing, putting longer and healthier lives within reach.
Even as we make strides in public health, companies that are developing innovative therapies are at risk. The legal protections that make new life saving medications affordable to develop and test are under attack, driving up costs and potentially killing off the innovation that could lead to breakthrough cures. It is critical that the government ensures that proper healthcare and novel treatments are accessible and affordable by protecting intellectual property patents from frivolous litigation.
Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death among Americans, with 60% directly linked to heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes. Unfortunately, Black American communities often face a higher chance of developing one or more of these illnesses. Black Americans are 40% more likely to have high blood pressure and 80% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. Even more troubling are the differences in life expectancy, as Black Americans on average live 75.1 years as compared with 78.9 years for whites. These statistics are largely driven by the numerous barriers to care that many within our community face — barriers that often lead to poor health outcomes and higher health care costs.
Innovations within the biopharmaceutical industry offer hope. Not too long ago, HIV and AIDS ravaged Black American communities, taking 72 lives each day. Even now, Black Americans account for 43% of new HIV diagnoses. Thankfully today, safe and effective medicines that suppress the virus are prolonging the lives of individuals who are living with HIV, and a genuine cure may be not far off. With the virus suppressed, the likelihood of transmitting the disease is nearly negligible and people living with HIV or AIDS can live as long as someone who does not have HIV. The development of the daily PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) pill also allows those who are HIV negative to protect themselves from transmission, revolutionizing preventative care. Due to these advancements, the death rate from AIDS in the United States has been reduced by more than 80 percent since its peak. Imagine how many lives will be saved if these breakthroughs continue.
All good things come with a price and innovation is not excluded. Pharmaceutical innovators are pouring billions into research and development to ensure new medications are discovered. And it has never been more expensive to take a newly invented drug from concept to approval. The average cost of developing a new drug has risen from $1.18 billion in 2010 to $1.99 billion in 2017. Because of this, companies rely on patent protections to recoup their R&D expenditures and stabilize profits. When providing a single patent challenge pathway, the process both provides a strong incentive for innovation and encourages eventual market competition to control costs.
A case in point: We’ve seen great progress in cervical cancer prevention. The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine has been shown to prevent infection from the strains of the HPV virus associated with cervical cancer. But there is a huge opportunity for innovation here. Two of the strains most associated with cervical cancer in Black women are not included in the vaccine. We need to ensure that the clinical trials necessary to update the vaccine can be completed. The companies that could do this type of research must be incentivized to do so.
We need to make sure that innovative and affordable medications are available to all Americans, especially those of us who have traditionally been shut out from getting the best care. While challenges are starting to be addressed, there is still more to do. Legislators need to acknowledge the health disparities among populations of color, and advocate for policies that support continued innovation to ensure that we all have the chance to live long and fruitful lives.
Linda Goler Blount, MPH serves as President and CEO, Black Women’s Health Imperative. BWHI, since 1983, has been the only national organization dedicated solely to improving the health and wellness of our nation’s 21 million Black women and girls – physically, emotionally and financially. Linda has served as vice president of programmatic impact, United Way of Greater Atlanta, she has served as the first‐ever national vice president of health disparities at the American Cancer Society, to include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as an expert scientist.