India's large youth population has always been considered its biggest asset. However, given the size of India's population even the ageing population is big enough. At the 12th Global Conference on Ageing that concluded on June 13 in Hyderabad, one of the important drivers was the International Federation on Ageing, an international NGO. Apart from the corporate world, the three-day event attracted speakers like Nobel laureate and a pioneer in microfinance Muhammad Yunus.
Jack T Watters, vice-president, external medical affairs, Pfizer Inc, said, "The ageing population is seven per cent of India's total population and it is expected to touch 20 per cent by 2050."
He said that it is very clear that as the population age, they become susceptible to non-communicable diseases. "Therefore prevention is far better than trying to cure advanced diseases," he said. "So what you then have is an opportunity to understand the demographics of a country so as to shape your business plan, your approach to the market and to identify what is needed for the population," Watters said.
He said as population ages, the focus of the pharma companies should shift from vaccinations for children to trying to prevent heart diseases, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. "What is also important is to understand that it is not just making medicines but also raising awareness among the aged that the companies need to do to prevent diseases and improve the quality of life," he said.
He pointed out that two of the top-selling Pfizer drugs - Lyrica for treating pains and Prevnar-13, a vaccine to prevent pneumonia - are essentially for the elderly population."When people age, their immune system is less robust so vaccination becomes important and it is an area that Pfizer happens to be involved in," he said.
Greg Shaw, Director, Corporate Relations at the International Federation on Ageing, said the population growth of this group is much faster in India than in many other countries. "A vast majority of the ageing population in India is in the rural areas where there is a real lack of healthcare infrastructure where they are unable to access healthcare facilities," said Christopher Gray, Senior Director, Global Institutions, International Public Affairs, Pfizer Inc.
So is affordability a big issue? "Price should never come between the medicine and the people who need it. It is the government's responsibility and we (a corporate entity) can then partner with the government on how to make that accessible and that is a negotiation that goes on with the government," said Watters. One way to deal with this, according to Gray, is to have innovative financing models like that of the GAVI Alliance, a global public-private partnership of scientists, health experts, government leaders, businesspersons and philanthropic organisations.
The polio vaccination drive has shown that access is not a big problem. India could reach to its remotest corners to eradicate polio. But affordability is. According to Watters, it has more to do with the political will. "A strong political will is very important to deal with any significant public health issue and there was a strong political will to eradicate polio as it was seen as a blight that had to be removed," he said.