The pharma industry must maintain its support for the areas affected by the tsunami

The pharmaceutical industry’s response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on 26 December, which killed 160 000 people, has been generous and immediate.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America association, which represents leading US companies, reports that its members contributed and pledged $82 million in medicines, cash and services.

The companies contributing aid include Pfizer which is donating $10 million (?5.3 million) in aid and a further $25 million in medicines; GlaxoSmithKline donating ?2 million in cash plus antibiotics and vaccines; Merck contributing $3 million; and Bristol-Myers Squibb giving $1 million plus medicines.

The response from governments, companies and individuals around the world has ensured this humanitarian crisis is among the best funded. At a meeting of donor countries in January, governments committed to providing $717 million of the $977 million requested by the UN.

Jan Egeland, UN emergency relief coordinator, expects to receive 100 per cent of the appeal request and hopes that private contributions will be ’counted in the billions of dollars for the emergency effort and for the reconstruction and rehabilitation effort’.

It is this reconstruction work that now needs to be focused on. Lessons learnt from past crises show that as interest wanes, donations fall and the reconstruction phase often does not get enough attention. In Bam, Iran, as attention faded, only five per cent of the new houses planned had been built a year after the earthquake in December 2003. Afghanistan, the world’s priority during 2001 and 2002, found it difficult by 2004 to get the help it needed. Donor governments gave only $26 million of the $73 million requested for its drought appeal.

The areas worst hit by the tsunami were some of the poorest. For instance, Oxfam reports that Aceh in Indonesia had only one hospital and almost 40 per cent of the population of 4.5 million had no access to any health services, while 49 per cent had no access to clean water.

Areas like this need to be reconstructed in a way that improves, rather than recreates the standard of living. Here, the pharmaceutical and broader chemical and engineering community can help.

GSK, for instance, is planning to use its global community partnership programmes to support healthcare and rebuild and repair local communities. At Sanofi-Aventis, each French site is adopting one of the villages destroyed and is planning a long-term relationship with them.

While the UN expects to receive all the aid it requested for the tsunami, this is not the only humanitarian crisis. High profile crises tend to receive more aid than others. For instance in 2003, appeals for Iraq and Chechnya received 91 per cent of their funds, while Liberia managed only 45 per cent. The UN is working to ensure that funds pledged for the tsunami appeal have not been diverted from other areas.

Companies should view their donations to the tsunami emergency relief as a starting point for contributions to the region, focus on reconstruction and think hard about how they respond to other appeals.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor