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WHO Developing Plan to Tackle Neglected Tropical Diseases

Experts and concerned people from developing and developed countries are meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop a global plan of action to combat the so-called neglected tropical diseases, which affect more than one-sixth of the world's population. Lisa Schlein reports from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Most of the neglected diseases are caused by parasites that thrive in impoverished settings, where water supply, sanitation, and housing are poor. As a group, diseases such as Leprosy, Guinea Worm, Schistosomiasis and Onchocerciasis or river blindness permanently deform and disable large numbers of poor people, trapping them in poverty. They are particularly prevalent in Africa.

The basis of the new action plan is to combat the 14 diseases together, as a package instead of individually. WHO's Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases, Lorenzo Savioli, says dealing with these diseases as a group will give them more prominence and greater priority on country health agendas.

"It has been years of work to do that," he said. "People are very jealous of their own disease, of their own specificity. And, breaking barriers has been a long process of thinking, moving from 'I am in charge of leprosy' to 'I am in charge of neglected tropical disease of which leprosy is one of the diseases' is a big change in the way things are doing."

A lot of progress has been made in combating some of the tropical diseases. For example, the World Helath Organization (WHO) says trachoma has decreased from 360 million cases in 1985 to 80 million people today. Cases of leprosy have decreased from 5.2 million to less than 220,000 and Guinea Worm, which now infects 25,000 people is at the point of eradication.

But, Dr. Savioli notes when a disease is at the point of elimination or eradication, people lose interest in it, resulting in setbacks. He says it is not as easy to ignore neglected diseases if they are considered as a group.

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine Professor David Molyneux says a majority of these diseases can become a thing of the past, because of safe and effective drugs. He says poverty is no longer a hindrance because the pharmaceutical industry is supplying drugs at low or no cost.

"The costs, certainly in Burkina Faso, which have been well studied are six cents, per person, per year. This is the best buy in public health," he said. "And in Southeast Asia, the cost of de-worming are between one and two cents per person, per year. I challenge anyone to find a better intervention, which reaches so many people at such a trivial cost."

The president of Burkina Faso and the vice president of Tanzania, among others, are at the meeting to share their experiences. They are urging nations to pursue a common strategy to rid their societies of these forgotten diseases.