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Devastating Infectious Diseases the Focus of New Funding and Research

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a $258 million grant for malaria research. According to the World Health Organization, a million people die of malaria each year. The Gates Foundation also contributes to OneWorld Health, a non-profit company that looks for existing drugs to treat neglected diseases in developing countries.

Malaria and many other diseases are spread by mosquitoes, flies, ticks and other parasites.

Black fever, for one, is almost totally fatal. Elephantiasis afflicts more than 120 million people according to the World Health Organization. River blindness, spread by the black fly, robs the sight of nearly 18 million.

These diseases afflict millions of the poor in Africa, Asia, the Western Pacific, and parts of the Caribbean and South America. Most drug companies don't make medicine for people who cannot afford to pay for it.

Dr. Nicolas de Torrente is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders-USA. "These people don't represent a market. There is no return on investment there."

Parasitic diseases are now getting attention from OneWorld Health, a non-profit pharmaceutical company based in San Francisco, California. Company founder Victoria Hale is a former pharmaceutical scientist who decided to look for existing drugs no longer covered by a patent that could be used to cure these neglected diseases. Her first target -- black fever.

She summed up why. "You hemorrhage and die. It's a terrible way to die."

With an off-patent drug and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, clinical trials in India cured 94 percent of the patients in the study. While that's great progress, there are other challenges according to Victoria Hale.

"The problem with infectious diseases is the bug that you are going after changes. It mutates. It develops resistances,” said Ms. Hale. “So you have to keep developing new medicines. And it is that which is not happening."

Drug companies are in business to make money. But some are getting involved in helping the poor. Jeffrey Sturchio, a vice president at Merck, says the company took an existing medicine for dogs and turned it into an effective treatment of river blindness in people.

"We were lucky enough to find something that worked and we have done what we can to make it available. In fact, we've donated more than a billion tablets."

Even so, the diseases that afflict 90 percent of the world's population get only 10 percent of the health funding. Most of the money goes to western medical conditions: heart disease, digestive problems, and erectile dysfunction.

"I believe that the way to address the system is not to go in and change this enormous system that exists,” said Ms. Hale, “but to build a system that works with what already exists, and to make it happen."

And that difficult job is at least underway.