Major effort to tackle neglected tropical diseases

Thirteen drug companies, the governments of the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lions Club and other smaller charitable organizations on Monday announced a joint effort to tackle 10 neglected tropical diseases in a coordinated fashion.

The diseases include lymphatic filariasis, visceral leishmaniasis, river blindness and dracunculiasis, and are almost never found in rich countries. Most are usually not fatal — but they still ruin the lives of subsistence farmers and rural craftsmen by causing blindness, grotesque swelling, chronic anemia, excruciating pain or other symptoms. These diseases are caused by worms, flukes or parasites and are spread by different vectors (like sandflies, tsetse flies or drinking water), some drugs that work against one will work against others. Leprosy, which is caused by bacteria, was one of the 10 diseases.

In an announcement at the Royal College of Physicians in London, the partners made various pledges; some drug companies increased the amounts of their donations, while others agreed to let their “libraries” of compounds be screened for new uses against tropical diseases. Margaret Chan, above right, director of the World Health Organization, and Bill Gates were among those at the news conference.

“These ancient diseases are now being brought to their knees with stunning speed… With the boost to this momentum being made today, I am confident almost all of these diseases can be eliminated or controlled by the end of this decade,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the organization's director-general. Commitments total $785 million for research, development and distribution, including $363 million from the foundation over five years for research, the partners said.

“It used to be that people would commit to a donation but nobody would order the drug because there wasn’t money to do the delivery,” Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp. who is co-chairman of the foundation, said in an interview. “Here, because you’ve got delivery money being committed and manufacturing money being committed, every year the amount of people who get this mass drug administration is going to be 10 times what it’s been.”

“Before, there were some initiatives here or there” to halt or cure the illnesses, Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher said at a press briefing. The joint initiative “launches a real war against these 10 diseases. We are seeing unprecedented collaboration, especially in R&D.”

The WHO’s goals are “completely unachievable” without the joint effort, Gates added. “If you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel in a group,” Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty said at the main press conference, citing an African proverb. “The execution, excellence and depth of understanding the problem is very strong in private-sector companies,” Gates said in the interview. “If you can find a way to draw them in, it’s absolutely the right way to do it.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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