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November 02, 2011

Neglected Diseases Afflict South Asia's Poor

by Vidushi Sinha

At a time when economists predict that South Asia's economy will grow, health experts point to hundreds of millions suffering from neglected infections, often as a result of poverty.  In a series of new studies, researchers say many countries in South Asia bear a disproportionate burden of these diseases and have a need for new drugs and vaccines.

Health experts say many tropical diseases that are mostly associated with sub-Saharan Africa have long been a neglected burden in South Asia as well.  New research shows about 1.5 billion people in South Asia suffer from severe debilitating parasitic and bacterial infections.

Peter Hotez is dean of the U.S. National School of Tropical Medicine. He says poverty is the primary factor that makes people susceptible to these diseases.  And because they are usually not fatal, he adds, there is no sense of urgency to combat them, and they have been easy for the world to ignore.

"Nobody is really dying from elephantiasis or lymphatic filariais and this is why it has been so hard to get these diseases the attention of global health policy makers," said Hotez.  "It's tens of millions of people being disfigured, being disabled, being too sick to go to work every day.  They do everything but kill and that's a difficult message sometimes to convey."

Hotez is the author of one of the recent studies.  He says one quarter of the world's intestinal parasitic infections occur in India and the rest of South Asia.  Filariasis, Kala-azar, and leprosy are also widespread.  He says these are the most common diseases that strike the poorest of the poor.

"You might have heard the term the bottom billion, the one billion people in the world who live on no money," added Hotez. "Well, it turns out that a large proportion of them live in India and South Asia and these are the diseases that are trapping that bottom billion in poverty."

Although some of these diseases can be treated with relatively simple immunization campaigns, treatments for others are expensive and complicated.  These infections also have a tendency to recur.

Amanda Glassman is the Director for Global Health at the Center for Global Development, a public policy research institute.  She says the new studies should prompt governments to give diseases of the poor a higher priority.

"I hope that it galvanizes policy makers to pay more attention to those diseases when they are thinking about what should be funded with public monies and how those very inexpensive but effective treatments that exist can reach people in need," said Glassman.

Experts urge Indian pharmaceutical companies to take the lead and focus not just on developing drugs for diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but on innovative therapies for neglected tropical diseases, as well.