Monday, August 31, 2009

RM awardee: Cheap drugs for poorest

By Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 08/31/2009

Filed Under: Awards and Prizes, Medicines, Health, Diseases, Pharmaceuticals
MANILA, Philippines—Thai pharmacist Krisana Kraisintu vividly remembers coming to the Philippines many years ago and visiting a large Filipino-owned drug manufacturing facility.

Someone generously shared with her the formula for a tuberculosis medicine that she took back to her home country and worked on so that the sick poor could avail of it.

It was a display of Filipino generosity Kraisintu would never forget and she often mentions it. She wishes she knew who it was in Unilab that gave her the formula.

But Kraisintu’s own generosity is evident as she continues to share her expertise and live a life of service in order to help not just the people of Thailand but also many poor African countries where diseases, particularly HIV-AIDS, threaten the lives of a staggering number of the population.

Kraisintu, 57, is one of the six recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards for 2009 who will be honored on Monday. The feisty pharmacist is being hailed “for placing pharmaceutical rigor at the service of patients, through her untiring and fearless dedication to producing much-needed generic drugs in Thailand and elsewhere in the world.”

“A crime against humanity and a holocaust of the poor.” This is how Kraisintu considers the high cost of medicines that are beyond the reach of the poor.

A daughter of a doctor-father and a nurse-mother, Kraisintu was drawn to the field of health and medicine. Kraisintu saw that the scourge of HIV-AIDS could be reversed if only antiretroviral drugs could be made cheaper.

She played a pivotal role in saving many lives, babies especially. Kraisintu credits compatriot Meechai Vairavadya, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee in 1994 for his work on HIV-AIDS prevention.

Kraisintu made a complimentary groundbreaking effort by using science to reverse the AIDS pandemic through cheaper drugs for those already infected with HIV.

Women and HIV-AIDS

“I used to be a member of a political party,” Kraisintu tells the Inquirer. But she had a falling out with one of the leaders because of his contemptuous attitude toward women who were in the flesh industry and who were vulnerable to HIV-AIDS.

Armed with her doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry from Bath University in England, Kraisintu buckled down to work. She joined the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) in 1983 and led its research department in producing many generic medicines for a wide range of illnesses.

“I am a pharmacist, not a pharmacologist,” Kraisintu explains.

With Thailand facing the threat of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, Kraisintu saw the need for research in order to develop cheap generic antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

She faced daunting problems: Lack of government support, skeptical colleagues and lawsuits from drug companies. Alone but undeterred, she worked in a windowless lab to find the formula.

Drug cocktail

In 1995, the pharmacist successfully came up with the world’s first generic ARV, a generic AZT (zidovudine) for HIV that reduces the risk of mother-to-baby HIV transmission.

It was not roses after that. Kraisintu had to face major legal battles to produce the second generic ARV drug (didanosine).

Undaunted, Kraisintu and her team even came up with a drug cocktail known as GPO-VIR, which was 18 times cheaper than the nongeneric AIDS pills.

GPO, Kraisintu is proud to say, produces seven types of ARVs. The production output is enough for a year for 150,000 patients in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Kraisintu has left the GPO in able hands in order to further spread the good news of generics elsewhere in the world.

In 2002, she went to the sub-Saharan Africa region, the hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic. In all, 13 African countries have benefited from this bold Asian woman’s efforts.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation notes Kraisintu’s courage amidst obstacles.

She “worked in zones of armed conflict, traveled to remote locations and contended with grossly inadequate facilities. In war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, she set up a pharmaceutical factory that was able to produce generic ARVs after three years,” the foundation says.

In Tanzania, Kraisintu upgraded an old facility to produce not only ARVs but cheap anti-malarial drugs as well. Those who learned under her were not necessarily trained scientists.

“Even drivers could make suppositories,” she notes, adding that administering medicines through suppositories is very effective.

Kraisintu has served as consultant for a nonprofit European organization involved in local production and distribution of medicines in Africa. She is honorary dean of the Faculty of Oriental Medicines in Rangsit University and visiting professor at the Ubon Rajathenne University in Thailand.

She is also visiting professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China. She has received numerous awards and honorary degrees.

She has pursued research on and promotion of herbal medicines in modern forms. Early this year, she formed a partnership with the Ubon Rajathanee University and set up a production unit to manufacture traditional herbal products from 78 medicinal plants.

And what can she say about multinational drug companies lording it over poor nations?

“Let’s admit it, we walk in parallel, we will never meet,” she says. “Do you know that despite the recession, the drug companies continue to have the highest profit?”

It’s because people will always need medicines, she explains.


Citing the importance of technology transfer, Kraisintu offers advice regarding production of generic medicines vis-à-vis obstacles from multinationals.

“The government must enforce compulsory licensing of any drug that is patented,” she says. Political will, in other words.

Although she comes from a family of means, the unmarried Kraisintu prefers to live simply. She considers herself a very happy woman.

“I learned to be very patient in Africa,” Kraisintu muses.

She has been called Simba Jike (Swahili for lioness) by East Africans. She laughs heartily and says, “Sometimes they call me Mama Tough.”

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