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Consortium Takes Aim at 'Neglected' Tropical Diseases

  • Vidushi Sinha

Experts say it's the largest coordinated effort ever - to fight diseases that are widespread, but normally don't get much attention. The new initiative launched in London this week has drawn almost $800 million in pledges to combat 10 so-called "neglected" diseases - such as sleeping sickness and guinea worm - that affect more than a billion people around the globe.

It was an unprecedented show of unity: Leaders of government, public and private health groups and major drug companies pledging to work closely together - to combat so-called "neglected tropical diseases," or NTDs.

“We will increase our financial investment and cumulative spending five-fold, from 50 million pounds [$79 million] to 245 million pounds [$387 million] by 2015...[and] that is four treatments a second," said Stephen O Brien.

Stephen O Brien, a Member of the British Parliament, was one of a number of government representatives at the London event - who pledged to fight these diseases, which sicken 1.4 billion people every year.

The World Health Organization says NTDs also cost governments and businesses billions of dollars in lost worker productivity.

Experts say these ancient maladies have been "neglected" because they affect mostly poor populations.

Dr. Donan Mmbando is with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Tanzania:

“The plight of NTDs is so real in my country," said Mmbando. "You need to see people with severe itching, lizard skins, which is manifestation of river blindness."

The London Declaration calls for the control or elimination of 10 tropical infections by the year 2020 - among them, such ancient scourges as lymphatic filariasis, blinding trachoma, leprosy, sleeping sickness, and guinea worm.

Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization says the goals are ambitious but achievable.

“WHO is launching a road map - a road map that has been tested and proven effective, [and] that will guide work to achieve our goals in 2020," said Chan.

Microsoft chairman and philanthropist Bill Gates, whose foundation pledged $340 million, asked other philanthropists to donate more and to save millions of children affected by parasitic infections:

“The soil-transmitted helminthes - you won’t see a visual picture, but what actually goes on is that the parasitic load that young kids have of those worms means that they are malnourished in a way that their brain never fully develops," said Gates. "So the rest of their life they are permanently impacted by this.”

The thirteen drug companies partnering in the initiative have agreed to share their libraries of experimental compounds to speed up development of new drugs and treatment.

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