UN and partners gear up to fight neglected tropical diseases affecting billions of people

26 October 2006

The United Nations health agency today joined with 25 partner organizations to unveil a new strategy using low-cost or free drugs to fight some of the most neglected tropical diseases caused by worm infections that threaten the lives and health of billions of poor people in developing countries around the world.

“Preventive chemotherapy does not necessarily stop infection taking place but it can help to reduce transmission,” the Director of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) Department for the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, Lorenzo Savioli, said. “The benefit of preventive chemotherapy is that it immediately improves health and prevents irreversible disease in adults.”

The approach contained in a newly published manual, Preventive Chemotherapy in Human Helminthiasis, focuses on using a set of low-cost or free drugs to simultaneously treat the four most common diseases caused by worms and afflicting over 1 billion people: river blindness (onchocerciasis), elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis), schistosomiasis, and soil-transmitted helminthiasis. The cost: as low as 40 cents per person per year.

“In the same way as we protect people against a number of vaccine-preventable diseases throughout their lives, the regular and coordinated use of a few drugs can protect people against worm-induced disease, improving children’s performance at school and the economic productivity of adults,” Mr. Savioli said.

The new approach provides a critical first step in combining treatment for diseases which, although different, require common resources and delivery strategies for control or elimination. The second key component brings together for the first time dozens of agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), pharmaceutical companies and others into a coordinated assault on neglected diseases.

The diseases’ impact can be measured in the impaired growth and development of children, complications during pregnancies, underweight babies, significant and sometimes disabling disfigurements, blindness, social stigma, and reduced economic productivity and household incomes.

These effects can be dramatically reduced by using highly effective drugs of proven quality and excellent safety record – the majority donated free by companies or costing less than $0.40 per person per year, including the cost of the drugs and their delivery.

“We need to urgently work together to improve access to rapid-impact interventions and quality care,” WHO Acting Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases David Heymann said. “The need to do so is incontestable from all perspectives: moral, human rights, economic and global public good. The task is feasible and must be done.”

Soil-transmitted helminthiasis affects more than 2 billion people worldwide, producing a wide range of symptoms that include diarrhoea, general weakness affecting working and learning capacities, impaired physical growth and anaemia.

It is estimated that 1.2 billion people in 83 countries live in areas endemic for lymphatic filariasis and about 120 million people are affected by the disease, with chronic complications including elephantiasis of the limbs, and damage to the genital organs, kidneys and lymphatic system.

Schistosomiasis affects about 200 million people worldwide, with more than 650 million living in endemic areas, and can cause bladder and ureteral complications, liver enlargement and bladder cancer in late-stages.

Onchocerciasis is endemic in 30 countries in Africa, 6 in the Americas, and in Yemen in the Arabian peninsula, with an estimated 100 million at risk of infection 37 million already infected with the disease which can cause rashes, subcutaneous nodules, intense itching, elephantiasis of the genitalia, and eye lesions that can lead to blindness.

The partners range from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Centers for Disease Control to leading pharmaceutical companies.


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