12 new cancer medicines added to the WHO List of Essential Medicines

12 July 2019

The World Health Organization (WHO) published an updated version of its Essential Medicines List (EML). UICC welcomes the strong focus on cancer with twelve new cancer medicines added.

Essential medicines  are medicines that "satisfy the priority health care needs of the population". These are medications to which people should have access to at all times in sufficient amounts.[1]

The list guides countries on the development of their own national Essential Medicines List. It also informs bulk procurement of international agencies such as UNICEF or GAVI

“We highly appreciate that twelve new cancer medicines have been added to the list. The updated list is a result of a rigorous process that gives the global cancer burden the attention it deserves.”
Sonali Johnson, Head of Knowledge, Advocacy and Policy, at the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) 

The WHO Model Lists of Essential Medicines is revised and published every two years by the WHO’s Expert Committee who decides by consensus, which medicines are added or removed. Since the first edition in 1977, the list has grown significantly from 208[2]  essential medicines to 460[3].

Strict selection criteria for the Essential Medicines List 

Each medicine application goes through a close screening. The Expert Committee bases the selection on the following criteria: 

  • Safety and efficacy of the medicines
  • Disease burden and public health needs 
  • Cost-effectiveness

After an extensive review conducted by UICC and WHO in 2015, the entire section on cancer medicines was revised and medicines are now listed according to the cancers they treat. This makes it easier for countries to prioritise cancer medicines.

New additions for cancer treatment

Pharmacist in front of medicine shelf
© Moonshine Agency Pty Ltd 2012

The cancer medicines that were added to the list this year, will help treat:

  • non-small cell lung cancer
  • multiple myeloma
  • prostate cancer
  • metastatic melanoma

Furthermore, cancer medicines were also added to the list of Essential Medicines for Children (EMLc) to treat:

  • acute promyelocytic leukaemia
  • acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

“Unfortunately, many low- and middle-income countries cannot afford to buy some of the medicines and also do not have access to the generic cheaper versions,” explains Sonali Johnson. “It will be important that governments work with manufacturers and other stakeholders to address such barriers and improve the entire spectrum of cancer care.”

In addition to the administration of cancer medicines, comprehensive cancer care requires a number of essential services including surgery, radiology and molecular diagnostic capacity. [4] While the increase of cancer medicines on the EML is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, much remains to be done to achieve equity in access to these medicines and all services according to Sonali Johnson.

The role of cancer organisations  

We encourage UICC members to take up the opportunity with governments and national essential medicines committees in their respective countries so that they use the latest WHO list in prioritising cancer medicines for procurement and reimbursement. 

Eventually, we would like to see all countries adopt the full list. In the meantime, we will continue to work with the WHO as more and more medicines are proven to be quality, safe and effective in the treatment of cancer.

For further information, see the complete List of Essential Medicines.

You can also access the List of Essential Medicines for Children.

Last update: 
Thursday 8 August 2019