The same pills that costs you $0.04 in Tanzania, cost you $400 in the U.S.
Albendazole is a medication used to treat parasitic worm infestations, including the intestinal parasite hookworm, which has re-emerged in the U.S.
Hookworm can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea and weight loss. More seriously, the mental and physical development of children may be affected, and anemia may result.
In Tanzania, you’d pay $0.04 for two 200 mg tablets, which will effectively knock out the hookworm infection, but in the U.S., you’d pay $400 for the same medication.
And it’s not just drugs for hookworm. Drugs to treat the so-called “neglected tropical diseases” like hookworm and leishmaniasis are astronomically more expensive in the U.S.
Impax Laboratories, the pharmaceutical company that sells albendazole in the U.S., declined to comment on their pricing methodologies, but in an email to NPR they wrote:
“Given the very different regulatory regimes in the U.S. versus outside the U.S., pricing is a very awkward comparison.”
Dr. Jonathan Alpern with the research division of the HealthPartners Institute in Minnesota says, “There really is no good reason for this price.”
That’s because the reason is simple: they can get away with it.
Drugs like albendazole have patents that are long expired, meaning that other pharmaceutical companies are free to produce a generic version of the drug.
But since there are so few patients in the U.S. suffering from these diseases, few pharmaceutical companies manufacture them, because there is less potential for profit.
So the companies that do manufacture them, companies like Impax, set the price at whatever they want, with no fear of competition.
After all, if you’ve got hookworm, you won’t be going to Tanzania for your albendazole.
As Dr. Alpern puts it:
“[Impax] fits into a category of companies that have taken drugs that have been around for many years, acquired the rights and jacked up the price [for the Western market].”
“When there’s limited competition in the market, the company that holds the monopoly is able to price [the drug] however they want. In these cases, we often see companies taking advantage of their market position.”
This is a serious problem for many of those suffering from neglected tropical diseases in the U.S. who are unable to afford the medications they need.
In Lowndes County, Alabama, for example, where a community was recently discovered to have hookworm, the average income is only $18,036.
“Some of the people in Lowndes County are living off $600 or $700 a month,” says Catherine Flowers, founder of Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. “People have told me they sometimes have to choose between buying medication and eating.”
But why is this allowed to happen? How can people be charged $0.04 in East Africa, $2 bucks in the U.K., but $400 dollars in the U.S.?
The problem is that the U.S. does not have price control methods in place. In other countries, the government intervenes to regulate drug prices, to make sure they do not increase by certain amounts.
There are no such price control mechanisms in the U.S.
Whatever the reason, it’s not right that an estimated 12 million Americans live in extreme poverty with a neglected tropical disease because they are unable to afford the the arbitrarily priced drugs.