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Neglected Diseases Kill 14 Million People A Year - 2003-05-15

For the past year, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has been trying to raise the awareness of Americans about the lack of essential medicines in developing countries. The group says “a silent crisis of massive proportions” is killing 14 million people every year. Its campaign includes a traveling exhibit, and its final stop on a 30-city tour is Washington, D-C.

Doctors Without Borders says new drugs are needed to fight five major diseases ravaging poor countries: sleeping sickness, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and the parasitic disease called kala azar. It calls them the “neglected diseases.”

Executive Director Nicolas de Torrente is calling on the US government and the pharmaceutical industry to devote new resources to finding effective and affordable treatments.

He says, "None of the eleven largest pharmaceutical companies has put a drug on the market for sleeping sickness, kala azar or chagas disease in the last five years, not a single one. There are hardly any new compounds in the development pipeline. On the other hand, we know from the pharmaceutical industry itself that there are currently eight new drugs for impotence and erectile dysfunction being developed, seven for obesity and four for sleep disorder."

Chagas disease, named by Mr. de Torrente, is a parasitic disease only found in Latin America. It causes fatal damage to the heart and digestive tract in many of those infected.

A trailer containing the Doctors Without Borders exhibit is parked on the National Mall in sight of the US Capitol building. Mr. De Torrente says the expo gives patients a voice.

He says, "What the patients in this exhibit are asking is really a very simple question. What are my treatment options? I have these diseases, how can I be treated? And the simple message that comes out of it is that even when they do see a doctor, many patients continue to die unnecessarily because the effective medicines that could save them are just not available."

Dr. Jill Seaman is a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders who has spent over 13 years in southern Sudan treating people infected with kala azar. She first arrived in the country illegally, her plane landing in a remote, rural area. She says she soon found out that over half the population in the area had died from kala azar, which is spread by tiny sand flies. She says the effects of the disease are terrible.

She says, "For instance, adults who walk with this disease weigh between sixty and ninety pounds (27 to 41 kilograms) and they’re taller than I am. They have fevers up to 104 (degrees F or 40 degrees Celsius). They have about a quarter of my supply of blood in their bodies and they’re really sick. And their bodies are in fact literally being eaten away by this parasitic disease."

Dr. Seaman treats her patients with a drug first used in the early 1900’s. Patients must endure 30 painful injections a day for a month to be cured. She says a better treatment is needed.

As part of the Doctors Without Borders campaign, petitions containing 30-thousand signatures of Americans were presented to the White House. The petitions were actually turned in by a group of children belonging to “Kids for World Health.” Ten-year-old Jake Feinman (FINE-man)is a co-founder of the group.

He says, "Fifteen classmates and myself founded this organization three years ago when we were studying Africa and learned that thousands of people die each year from sleeping sickness. We also learned that a cure exists, but is not available to most people in Africa. We believe that our government has the resources and the responsibility to make these drugs accessible."

The motto of the children’s group is “Life is important for all people, rich or poor.”

Rachel Cohen, US director of the Doctors Without Borders Access to Essential Medicines campaign, says progress is being made.

She says, "I think that with many other organizations and individuals throughout the world, we helped to raise awareness about this crisis and to put it on the political agenda in general. It’s being discussed at the World Trade organization, at the World Health Organization; at the G-8 summit there will be items related to health and access to medicines. And I think we’ve all contributed to raising awareness about the issue. What we need now is the serious political attention of the world’s leaders, both in developing countries and in wealthy nations like the US."

Doctors Without Borders says the message to policymakers is very clear – the current system of research and development is failing.