Tobeka Daki died this week. And she shouldn’t have.
Tobeka lived in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and was the mother of two sons. Her youngest son, Khanya, is 11 years old. In 2013, she was diagnosed with a strain of breast cancer known as HER2.
There is a medicine called Trastuzumab, marketed under the name Herceptin, that is very effective at treating Tobeka’s form of breast cancer. The groundbreaking research that led to the discovery of Herceptin was funded by U.S. taxpayers. A year’s dose can be manufactured for about $176.
But Tobeka was never treated with Herceptin. The corporation that controls the medicine charges about $34,000 in South Africa for a year’s worth of doses. That cost is five times more than Tobeka’s income, which is right around the per capita average in her country. But the corporation enjoys a monopoly patent on the drug, which means they can charge whatever they wish, with no fear of a generic alternative being made available.
That company made $11.6 billion profit in 2015.
Tobeka was enrolled in her country’s medical insurance program. But many physicians in South Africa and other locations don’t even tell their patients with HER2 breast cancer about the existence of Herceptin. No point getting their hopes up about a medicine they and their nation’s health program can never afford.
In her last months of life, Tobeka devoted many precious, dwindling hours to telling her story. Ten million people die each year due to not having access to the medicines that would save them—a number higher than the population of New York City. But those victims usually suffer and die in anonymity. So Tobeka allowed her own face and name to be used to break through the abstraction of statistics.
When I last spoke with Tobeka, things were not good. Her cancer had spread to her spine, her sons were getting scared, and she had recently lost a fellow patient with whom she had grown close. But Tobeka kept fighting for change, even as it became clear she was fighting only for those who would outlive her. As recently as two months ago, she participated in a demonstration outside a government health office, joining the call for better drug access.
Tobeka’s courage reminded us that cancer has become what HIV/AIDS was at the turn of the century: a disease often survivable by those who can afford the artificially-inflated price tags of essential medicines, but a certain death sentence for millions of others.
That grim HIV/AIDS landscape was upended by the morally-charged outrage led by patients, persons of faith, caregivers, and health activists. Together, they broke the corporate monopolies on AIDS medicines discovered with taxpayer dollars. When those profit-soaked barriers fell away, it was revealed that the lifesaving drugs could be provided for less than $1 a day.
Today, those who struggle with untreated cancer deserve that same level of urgent, passionate support. So do the millions of children who die each year due to lack of unaffordable vaccines, and the seniors and others who can’t afford to fill their prescriptions even in the comparatively wealthy U.S.
It is too late for Tobeka Daki. But we owe it to her memory to stop allowing life and health to be auctioned off to only the lucky few who can afford it.