Even after centuries, it’s hard getting noticed. While they don’t have the name recognition of an epidemic like AIDS (or the Bono star power), neglected tropical diseases, some of which have been around since at least 600 B.C., are the most common serious maladies for the 2.7 billion people on earth who live on less then $2 per day.
On January 30 in London, more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies, the governments of the U.S., United Kingdom, and United Arab Emirates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and others announced a coordinated push to wipe out or control 10 neglected diseases by the end of the decade.
Guided by the World Health Organization’s “roadmap” for overcoming the diseases, the group set lofty goals: global elimination of blinding trachoma, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, and sleeping sickness by 2020; global elimination of guinea worm disease by 2015; and control, with targeted elimination, of Chagas’ disease, visceral leishmaniasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, and soil-transmitted helminths.
While the coordinated effort is focused on 10 neglected tropical diseases, the WHO lists a total of 17. Writer Paul Webster explored underfunded serious maladies in developing countries with his article titled “The AIDS Funding Dilemma,” in the July-August 2010 issue of Miller-McCune, which spawned numerous stories at Miller-McCune.com about neglected tropical diseases.
At an event at the Royal College of Physicians, the group announced drug donation programs, research collaboration, and more than $785 million to support R&D efforts and strengthen drug distribution programs — no small number, but still a ways away from the $2 billion that the WHO report estimates it will take to “prevent and treat all people at risk of contracting a common neglected tropical disease by 2015.”
For their part, the drug companies will donate billions of treatments each year.
“Many companies and organizations have worked for decades to fight these horrific diseases,” Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, speaking on behalf of the CEOs of the 13 pharmaceutical companies involved, was quoted in a release. “But no one company or organization can do it alone. Today, we pledge to work hand-in-hand to revolutionize the way we fight these diseases now and in the future.”
Together, neglected tropical diseases kill around 534,000 people each year — contrasted with the 1.8 million that died of AIDS in 2010. But these diseases cast a long shadow, leading to long-term disability and poverty as a result of disfigurement, impaired childhood development, and reduced productive capacity, according to a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
According to the study, “If metrics are applied to the disability and poverty associated with these diseases, the neglected tropical diseases can be shown to constitute large burdens on the health and economic development of low-income countries.”
But, with Bill and Melinda Gates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and world health leaders on board with a coordinated push, maybe the neglected tropical diseases have finally found their Bono.