LONDON (Reuters) - Malaria campaigners have urged governments to drop all taxes and tariffs on medicines, mosquito nets and other anti-malaria tools to help reduce the costs of life-saving products and speed up their delivery.
The Malaria Taxes and Tariffs Advocacy Project (M-TAP) says only six countries worldwide have completely removed tariffs on products used to fight the disease, despite a promise 10 years ago from African leaders to do so.
"While progress has been made in removing taxes and tariffs and rolling back import barriers, many countries still have a long way to go," Halima Mwenesi, director of M-TAP, said in a statement after the group held a meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.
"A decade ago, 40 African heads of state agreed to reduce or eliminate taxes and tariffs, but our data indicate that only six countries worldwide have completely removed tariffs on the products required for comprehensive malaria control."
Campaigners say dropping taxes and tariffs can play a key role in cutting costs because the vast majority of drugs and other products used to fight malaria are imported from overseas.
To date, M-TAP says, only the African countries of Guinea, Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania and Uganda and the Asian nation of Papua New Guinea have done away with tariffs on commodities recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as essential to effective malaria control.
These include long-lasting insecticide-treated bednets, malaria drugs known as artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), rapid diagnostic tests, insecticides for indoor spraying, and insecticide spray pumps.
Malaria is an infectious disease spread by mosquitoes that threatens up to half the world's population. It kills around 800,000 people a year, most of them children in Africa.
Awa Marie Coll-Seck, head of the WHO's Roll Back Malaria Partnership, said African nations were taking the lead, and she hoped governments in Asia and Latin America would now follow.
M-TAP, which has been gathering evidence from nearly 80 malaria-hit countries over the past two years, said it found that taxes and tariffs on anti-malaria products provide only minimal revenues, and these gains are often offset by health costs and lost productivity from preventable malaria illnesses.
Taxes and tariffs may also prevent the poor from gaining access to malaria treatment, the group said.
Anecdotal evidence suggests most people seeking treatment for fever buy their medicines from local chemists and kiosks rather than from local government clinics and hospitals.
The average medicine course can cost between $6 and $10 in many African and Asian countries, while three billion people worldwide earn less than $2.50 per day, M-TAP said.
"Private sector providers continue to play a critical role in supplying access to malaria treatment and prevention despite the huge increase in donor commitments over the past five years," said Mwenesi. "We must make every effort to ensure that cost does not pose a significant barrier to access."
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; editing by Mark Heinrich)