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Fact Sheet: Essential Medicines

Essential medicines are those medicines that meet the priority health care needs of a given country or region. The essential medicines concept, developed by the World Health Organization in 1975, advocates choosing a limited range of medicines to improve access to health care and quality of health care. These medicines should be of good quality, affordable and available at all times.

They should also be prescribed and used appropriately and rationally. The WHO first published an Essential Medicines List in 1977. This first list included 280 medicines which could give the most efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for the majority of communicable and non-communicable illnesses suffered by people all over the world.

The 13th edition of the WHO essential medicines list, published in 2003, has 312 medicines and includes 12 anti-retroviral medicines for the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
Essential medicines lists tie in to national medicine policies as a means to improving the quality of health of a given population. (Also tie into rational use issues.)
Countries are encouraged to develop their own essential medicines lists as a tool in guiding the national medicines policies, financing and procurement processes.
The WHO estimates that over a third of the world's population does not have access to essential medicines. This rises to half in the very poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Additional Resources:

  • WHO's 13th edition of the Essential Medicines List (a PDF file)
  • WHO's Essential Medicines List
  • Information about the essential medicines concept (a PDF file)

Contact Information

Health Action International (HAI) Africa Office
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P.O Box Nairobi - Kenya
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