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East African Physicians Urge Action on Neglected Disease

  • Gabe Joselow

Kala azar patients await sodium stibogluconate injections in Sudan, Jan. 3, 2011.

Kala azar patients await sodium stibogluconate injections in Sudan, Jan. 3, 2011.

A parasite known as kala azar is said to infect half-a-million people worldwide, killing up to 60,000 people each year. Spread through the bite of a sandfly, its symptoms are fever, weight loss and swelling of the spleen and liver.

While effective treatment exists, the disease hasn't garnered the worldwide attention of diseases like malaria, and the deadly parasite has long been neglected by donors and governments.

This week, East African health officials met in Nairobi to discuss efforts to combat the disease.

While the group says it has developed an effective treatment, challenges remain in reaching those affected. The reason, says Dr. Monique Wasunna, assistant director for research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, is because it affects the "poorest of the poor."

“There has been neglect by pharmaceutical companies as well as funding agencies who are not really interested because these patients do not have purchasing power for the compounds that they make," she says.

According to Professor Ahmed El Hassan of the University of Khartoum in Sudan, who has been studying the disease for 50 years, researchers working in cooperation with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative have identified a new way to cure the disease while cutting the treatment time almost in half.

But still, health officials say donors and East African governments need to step up funding to mobilize the new treatment, a costly procedure that requires registering the compound on lists of necessary drugs so that it can be imported into countries that need it.

The World Health Organization recently supplied drugs necessary to battle kala azar to South Sudan -- the most affected country in East Africa -- yet the aid-dependent nation lacked resources to administer them.

"The big challenge is that these drugs are given to us without the disposable syringes, without gloves, without swabs, without some of these things," says Dr. Mounir Lado Lugga, Director for Endemic Tropical Diseases at the South Sudanese Ministry of Health. "So sometimes you have the medication, but if you don't have the syringes, what will you do?"

There were 10,000 cases of kala azar diagnosed in South Sudan last year, out of which about 600 people died. Whereas those treated for the disease develop immunity against future infection, Lugga says he expects infection rates to climb as members of the South Sudanese diaspora start returning to high-risk areas in the newly independent country.

Kala azar has had a particularly devastating impact throughout Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. In 2010, South Sudan saw the worst Kala Azar Outbreak in eight years.

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