WHO seeks "complete control" of neglected tropical diseases

14th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

The World Health Organisation set itself a target on Thursday to tame tropical diseases that affect one billion impoverished people worldwide within the next next decade.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan called for action "on a grand scale" to combat 17 diseases that are largely neglected by drug makers.

In its first report on the 17 neglected tropical diseases, such as Dengue fever, leprosy, river blindness or bilharzia, the WHO said that 534,000 people die every year often after receiving minimal care or treatment.

An estimated one billion of the 2.7 poorest people in 149 countries are affected by one or more of the diseases, sometimes by as many as five or seven of them simultaneously.

"While the scale of the need for prevention and treatment is huge, the poverty of those affected limits their access to interventions and the services needed to deliver them," Chan said in the report.

"Diseases linked to poverty likewise offer little incentive to industry to invest in developing new or better products for a market that cannot pay."

Speaking at the report's launch Chan said some of the diseases could be fully erased as early as 2015.

"If we keep doing the right things better, and on a larger scale, some of these diseases could be eliminated by 2015, and others by 2020," she said.

The UN health agency underlined that such unrelenting and debilitating infections and parasitic diseases, which cause blindness, disability and deformities, do not kill in the same numbers as HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis and stay out of the limelight, with the exception of Dengue.

Chan nonetheless highlighted recent signs of progress with efforts to tackle such diseases directly rather than waiting for them to disappear as countries develop and living conditions change.

"Substantial funds" were coming from private foundations and governments, while medical research has grown and pharmaceutical companies have made "generous drug donations" to treat some neglected tropical diseases.

"Aiming at their complete control and even elimination is fully justified," said Chan.

The global health body spoke three years ago of an "unprecedented commitment" to eradicate the diseases, which are mainly present in Africa and Latin America, as well as parts of Asia.

A group of experts at the WHO have been studying new ways of financing a drive against neglected tropical diseases.

But the effort has been tainted by controversy after a draft of their report found its way to the pharmaceutical industry at the end of 2009 before it was seen by the WHO's member states, forcing Chan to hold an internal inquiry.

The chief executive of Sanofi Aventis, Chris Viehbacher, said the pharmaceutical group would devote 25 million dollars to the WHO for neglected diseases in the form of medicines and cash for the WHO over five years.

"We are not forgetting neglected diseases. We are determined to work in a partnership," he said.

GlaxoSmithKline chief executive Andrew Witty said the pharma giant would give 400 million extra doses of medicine to treat elephantiasis from the beginning of 2012, raising the total to one billion a year.

However, Brazil's ambassador Maria Nazareth Farani Azevedo signalled that donations were not enough, urging more work on a global strategy to finance research and development of medicines for diseases that affect poor countries.

"We would like to see this organisation more engaged in strategies to reduce the price of drugs," she added at the launch of the report.

© 2010 AFP

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