U.N. health agency targets neglected tropical diseases

The United Nations health agency has unveiled a report detailing ways to combat a group of chronic infectious diseases, found almost exclusively in very poor populations, and which are increasingly being overcome through donations of drugs by the international pharmaceutical industry.

The report, “Working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases,” released by the U.N. World Health Organization, covers 17 neglected tropical diseases that thrive in poor environments, where housing is substandard, living surroundings are contaminated with filth, and disease-spreading insects and animals abound.

“These are debilitating, sometimes horrific diseases that are often accepted as part of the misery of being poor,”said Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization.

“The strategies set out in this report are a breakthrough. If implemented widely, they can substantially reduce the disease burden, breaking a cycle of infection, disability and lost opportunities that keep people in poverty,” Ms. Chan said.

At the launch of the report in Geneva, several pharmaceutical firms made additional commitments to continue donating drugs to fight some of the diseases.

Novartis renewed its commitment to donate an unlimited supply of multi-drug therapy and loose clofazimine to treat leprosy and its complications.

Glaxo Smith Kline announced a new five- year commitment to expand its donation of albendazole through the organization to treat school-age children for soil transmitted helminthiases in Africa. The donation is in addition to the company’s current donation for lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) treatments.

Sanofi-Aventis, for its part, agreed to renew its support for the program against sleeping sickness elimination and support for Buruli ulcer, Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis) and leishmaniasis for the next five years.

Johnson & Johnson announced last week that it is expanding its donation of mebendazole to supply up to 200 million treatments per year for tackling intestinal worms in children.

The consequences of untreated, long-term infection of some of the tropical diseases vary. They include blindness, disfiguring scars and ulcers, severe pain, limb deformities, impaired mental and physical development, and damage to internal organs.

Worldwide, the diseases are endemic in 149 countries and territories, and impair the lives of at least one billion people.

According to the report, activities undertaken to mitigate the impact of the neglected tropical diseases so far are producing unprecedented results. Treatment with preventive chemotherapy reached 670 million people in 2008 alone. Guinea worm disease will be the first disease eradicated by health education and behavior change.

Reported cases of sleeping sickness have dropped to their lowest level in 50 years, and elephantiasis is targeted for elimination as a public health problem by 2020.

The report also recognizes the challenges that lie ahead and the opportunities to alleviate the suffering of people in disease-endemic countries. Delivery systems, for example, need to be strengthened.

“The use of the primary school platform to treat millions of children for schistosomiasis and helminthiasis in Africa is a perfect example. It provides opportunities to broaden health education, thereby ensuring healthier future generations,” said Lorenzo Savioli, director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at World Health.

The report also notes that better coordination is needed with veterinary public health as an essential element of controlling diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. For example, every year, tens of thousands of human deaths occur from rabies, usually contracted from dogs. An estimated 95 per cent of cases occur in Asia and Africa and up to 60 per cent of cases are in children under the age of 15.

Among the neglected tropical diseases are Buruli ulcer disease (Mycobacterium ulcerans infection), Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis), dengue, dracunculiasis (guinea-worm disease), human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leishmaniasis, leprosy (Hansen disease), lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), onchocerciasis (river blindness) and rabies.

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