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© 2019 Charles et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Background Essential medicines lists and related policies are intended to meet the priority health needs of populations and their implementation is associated with more appropriate use of medicines. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that countries carefully select the medicines to be included in their national essential medicines lists. Lists that are used to prioritize access to important treatments should not include medicines that have been withdrawn elsewhere because of an unfavourable benefit-to-harm balance; however, countries still list and use medicines that have been withdrawn worldwide. The objective of this study was to determine whether the national essential medicines lists of 137 countries include medicines that have been withdrawn in other countries. Methods and findings We performed an audit of national essential medicines lists for medicines that had been withdrawn. Medicines withdrawn from worldwide markets between 1953 and 2014 were identified using a systematic review of published literature and regulatory documents. The reviewers used sources including the WHO's database of drugs, PubMed, and the websites of regulatory agencies to obtain information regarding adverse effects associated with the medicines, the year of first withdrawal, markets of withdrawal, and the level of evidence supporting each withdrawal. We recorded the number of countries with a withdrawn medicine included in their national medicines list, the number of withdrawn medicines included in each nation's list, and the number of national essential medicines including each withdrawn medicine. 97 medicines were withdrawn in at least one country but still included in one more national essential medicines list. Of 137 countries with a national essential medicines list, 136 lists included at least one withdrawn medicine, with 54% of the lists containing 5 or fewer withdrawn medicines, and 27% including 10 or more withdrawn medicines. 11 medicines were withdrawn worldwide but still included on at least one national essential medicines list. Countries with longer essential medicines lists had more withdrawn medicines included in their lists. Conclusions This study found that withdrawn medicines are included in all but one national essential medicines list, representing a need for more stringent processes for selecting and removing medicines on these lists. Countries may wish to apply special scrutiny to medicines withdrawn in other nations when selecting medicines to include on their lists.

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