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A Call to Wipe Out Neglected Tropical Diseases

  • Vidushi Sinha

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates speaks at the 'Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases' conference at the Royal College of Physicians, in London, January 30, 2012.

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates speaks at the 'Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases' conference at the Royal College of Physicians, in London, January 30, 2012.

A global initiative to control or eradicate 10 neglected tropical diseases within the decade was officially launched this week in London. Experts say the initiative is the largest coordinated effort ever undertaken to combat diseases - including sleeping sickness and guinea worm - that affect more than a billion people around the world. Tropical disease experts shared their thoughts with VOA about what impact the initiative is likely to have.

In an unprecedented show of unity, leaders of government, public and private health groups and major drug companies have pledged to work closely to combat neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs. These debilitating infections affect 1.4 billion people in the world’s poorest countries. The so-called London Declaration calls for the eradication and elimination of 10 of these tropical illnesses by the year 2020.

The World Health Organization says NTDs cost billions of dollars in lost productivity. But the maladies have been largely overlooked by medical researchers because they affect relatively small and mostly poor populations.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director General, called the initiative a roadmap for an ambitious but achievable journey.

“Just think of the prospect of freeing millions of people - most of them are children and women - so that they could have a healthy and productive life. On that we need your support. Come with us. This is going to be a long journey but we have [taken] a very good first step,” said Chan.

With funds from various partners totaling $785 million, the project aims to eliminate many ancient scourges - such as leprosy, sleeping sickness, lymphatic filariasis, blinding trachoma, and guinea worm.

Microsoft chairman and philanthropist Bill Gates pledged $363 million through his namesake foundation. He called the London Declaration 'a milestone event.'

“We have very ambitious goals that we have set. For example, for guinea worm we have got that 2015 eradication so we have a nice little competition going on between polio and guinea worm to see which would get to be the second disease eradicated and which will get to be the third disease eradicated, and the sooner the better for both of those,” said Gates.

To speed the search for new drugs to fight the diseases, 13 drug companies have for the first time agreed to share their libraries of experimental compounds. And they also have agreed to donate and deliver billions of doses of drugs every year to aid the poorest of the poor, in the most remote corners of the world.

Dr. Mwele Malacela is director-general of Tanzania’s National Institute of Medical Research in Dar es Salaam.

She said people in her country have been suffering because drug delivery always has been a challenge, but the London pledges give her hope.

“Even when we have the donations, funding the delivery of the drugs has been a major problem. Now that we hear that there is more funding in the delivery side, we feel that we will be in a better position,” said Malacela.

There have been many initiatives against NTDs, although on a small scale. Dr. Neeraj Mistry, Managing Director of Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, said they were not very effective because access to drugs was limited.

“It's only now that with raised awareness and increased commitments from drug companies, as well as foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US and UK government, that we can actually take the response to NTDs to scale - which means that we can treat more communities and more people,” said Mistry.

Experts hope that by decade's end, the focus this initiative brings to neglected tropical diseases will mean they will no longer have to be called “neglected.”