“Half the world’s people lack access to medicines”
Giancarlo Francese works to help improve access to medicines for some of the world’s poorest people. His job is a challenging one: to help improve the health of millions of people – as quickly as possible. Here he discusses an important campaign to get cancer drugs to children in Malawi, and how the death of a childhood friend influenced his decision to pursue a career in the health industry.
Half of the people around the world lack access to medicines: it’s my job to help improve that statistic. We work to find new ways of increasing access globally to our medicines, both in countries where Teva has a presence but also in low-income countries where we don’t.
My main area of focus right now is working to get cancer drugs to children in Malawi. We’re collaborating with the Texas Children’s Hospital’s Global Hope program and our logistics partner, Direct Relief, to increase access to cancer treatments for 700 children a year. Our aim is to reduce the mortality rate in Malawi by 40 per cent. The survival rate of children with cancer in low income countries is around 20 per cent 01, which is staggeringly low and is largely preventable with access to the right treatment. By contrast, the survival rate in high income countries is about 80 per cent 02.
The most brilliant thing about my job is its tangible impact. I am privileged to see the difference our work makes. In Malawi, our unique partnership with these organizations is working very well. The knowledge that children and families are receiving something that they would not otherwise have had is a gift to me. By 2021 we will be able to start measuring impact and get a sense of how many lives have been saved.
Teva has the biggest medicine cabinet in the world. The sheer scale of medicines we produce, including many of those on the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicine List, means that we can often be in a position to make a real difference with our work to increase access to medicines around the globe. Nearly two-hundred million people rely on Teva medicines every day!
I never get used to seeing people suffer. When you go into these situations, there’s a point when you react emotionally. Always. There can be a high level of frustration because I cannot help immediately. There’s also a classic dilemma we sometimes face – do we try and move as quickly as possible to address an immediate challenge, or should we take more time and develop a scaled-up approach that ultimately could help more people?
My best friend Massimo died of cancer when I was 14. This is what made me want to have a career in health. Massimo’s dad was an oncologist and I saw first-hand how the treatment prolonged his life. I’ve always had a natural inclination to think about others - why they suffer or why they are happy. That’s why I love my job because we can make a real difference. Having empathy is key to what we do. Only then can you identify how to help.
Every day comes with its own successes and challenges. Each project we work on is different. We need to see the reality of people’s struggles before we can act effectively. Lives can be at stake, so it’s vital that we think outside of the box.
I will never forget the work we did in Ethiopia. The country nearly ran out of drugs to treat children with cancer in 2018 so we worked with our partners to improve access to the medicines. The stories I heard were heart-breaking. Some of the people we were targeting tended to associate hospitals with death. When they took their child to hospital, they would put on their son or daughter’s most elegant clothes, because they were sure they were going to die there. Children were dying because they were simply in the wrong part of the world.
We donate medicines to crisis regions that the mainstream media has long since forgotten. Sadly, places like Haiti have dropped off the global news agenda but they are still in urgent need of support. Through our affiliate company in Switzerland and Direct Relief, we have been able to donate essential medicines to support underserved patients in Haiti at St Luke’s Hospital.
I like to spend as much time as possible with my daughter. I feel that more and more she’s starting to fly alone, and it’s beautiful to see. We are so lucky, because I know that elsewhere in the world, children of her age have grown up watching family members and loved ones die from often curable diseases.
Maša Rajic Linaric
Maša is an Associate Director for Research and Development, Physical Characterisation, at Teva API, responsible for a team researching solid-state active substances – which is the process that turns effective treatments into viable products for people.