Waterborne infectious diseases could soon be consigned to history

Waterborne infectious diseases, which bring death and illness to millions of people around the world, could largely be consigned to history by 2015 if global health partnerships integrate their programmes, according to Alan Fenwick writing in Science.

Professor Fenwick, from Imperial College London, argues that up to seven neglected tropical diseases including river blindness could be brought under control, with infection by some eliminated entirely, if existing programmes increase their coverage.

In Africa some 500 million people need treatment to control diseases such as disfiguring elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), schistosomiasis, intestinal worms and the blinding eye infection trachoma.

The donation of drugs by pharmaceutical companies, together with financial donations from foundations, is already having a sizeable impact, with numbers given treatment for these diseases increasing from virtually zero in 1986 to between 20 and 80 million individuals annually in 2006.

More funding is required to convince decision makers of the benefits of treatment, to improve health education material and to deliver the drugs to those who need them. The cost can be as low as 25 pence per person per year, and the impact would be rapid.

"The current situation in Africa is such that most people living close to major rivers and lakes need not be subjected to the waterborne diseases that previously plagued them," writes Professor Fenwick.

"The programmes to prevent death, blindness and disfigurement have proved that they can work, and by 2006 they are reaching ever more people with donated or inexpensive drugs. The health of children in areas that have been reached is improving, and they are gaining a better start in life," he says.

Professor Fenwick leads the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which is supported by a £20 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project aims to assist countries in sub Saharan Africa to control schistosomiasis and intestinal helminths.

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