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Non-Profit Global Health Institute Fights Neglected Tropical Diseases in Africa


Disadvantaged populations in tropical regions of the globe suffer proportionally in much greater numbers from seven debilitating groups of afflictions that cause problems ranging from blindness and internal bleeding to malnutrition and skin disease. These infections, known collectively as NTD’s, or Neglected Tropical Diseases, are steadily gaining recognition as afflictions of poverty because of the huge economic toll they take on human productivity. Dr. Peter Hotez, who heads Washington’s Sabin Vaccine Institute at George Washington University, says that although overshadowed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and efforts to eradicate malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, these tropical infirmities are both curable and preventable.

“Neglected Tropical Diseases refer to the debilitating poverty-promoting conditions that are primarily caused by parasites and bacteria. They include a group of worm infections, such as hookworm, schistosomiasis, river blindness, and elephantiasis, diseases such as African sleeping sickness, and Chagas disease and Buruli ulcer,” he said.

Dr. Hotez is a founder of the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative (HHVI), which is currently testing an effective inoculation against hookworm, a parasite disorder which is caused by a worm that occupies the intestine and afflicts 198 million patients in Africa -- 576 million people worldwide. Once testing confirms its safety and usefulness, Dr. Hotez says it will serve as a new model for neglected disease treatment by the non-profit sector’s collaboration with middle income developing countries.

“It’s still in the clinical testing stage,” he says. “But we hope that within the next five years that it’s safe and effective and therefore it can be widely used. How are we going to get these vaccines to the people who urgently need them in the poorest countries? We call it a global access roadmap to get these vaccines, and linking innovative health systems for delivering them, such as schools, for instance.”

High-profile enterprises like former President Clinton’s Global Initiative (CGI) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have focused attention on the need to motivate drug companies and manufacturers to provide medications at lower cost to people in developing societies. Dr. Hotez points out that through its vaccine enterprise, the Sabin Institute has made a one million dollar commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative to help address some of the health inequities exacerbated by global poverty.

“Since this vaccine is still a few years away, we also have to start thinking about what can we do for these people now. And for that, what we have done at the Sabin Institute through an organization known as the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Disease Control (GNNTDC), we’ve developed an innovative package of drugs that could be delivered right now to people. They are not perfect. But for some of the Neglected Tropical Diseases such as elephantiasis or trachoma, which is a cause of blindness, we think we can actually eliminate these diseases with the drugs alone. Then in time when the vaccines are available, we’ll fold them into the package,” he said.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute, based in Washington, D.C., is named to honor the legacy of oral polio vaccine pioneer, the late Dr. Albert B. Sabin, who also made major contributions in the study of parasitology, tropical medicine, childhood infections, and cancer. The Global Network is currently running a program working with the health ministries in Rwanda and Burundi aimed at treating and conquering the seven NTD’s. Another project in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Uganda, that treats five of the tropical diseases, is conducted in partnership with the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) under funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).