Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Essential medicines for cancer: WHO recommendations and national priorities

Jane Robertson, Ronald Barr, Lawrence N Shulman, Gilles B Forte & Nicola Magrini


To examine, for essential anti-cancer medicines, the alignment of national lists of essential medicines and national reimbursable medicines lists with the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Model Lists.


National medicine lists for 135 countries with per-capita gross national incomes below 25 000 United States dollars in 2015 were compared with WHO’s 2013 and 2015 Model Lists of Essential Medicines. Correlations between numbers of anti-cancer medicines included in national lists and gross national income (GNI), government health expenditure and number of physicians per 1000 population were evaluated.


Of the 25 anti-cancer medicines on the 2013 Model List and the 16 added via the 2015 revision of the Model List, 0–25 (median: 17) and 0–15 (median: 3) appeared in national lists, respectively. There was considerable variability in these numbers within and between World Bank income groups. Of the 16 new medicines included in the 2015 Model List, for example, 0–10 (median: 1) and 2–15 (median: 10) were included in the national lists of low-income and high-income countries, respectively. The numbers of these new medicines included in national lists were significantly correlated (P ≤ 0.0001) with per-capita GNI (r = 0.45), per-capita annual government health expenditure (r = 0.33) and number of physicians per 1000 population (r = 0.48). Twenty-one countries (16%) included the targeted anti-cancer medicines imatinib, rituximab and trastuzumab in their national lists.


Substantial numbers of anti-cancer medicines are included in national lists of low- and middle-income countries but the availability, affordability, accessibility and administration feasibility of these medicines, at country-level, need assessment.