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Celebrities, Athletes Raise Funds To Fight Neglected Tropical Diseases in Developing Countries

For just half a US dollar per person a year, seven groups of the worst tropical diseases afflicting African residents of extremely poor regions can effectively be controlled or eliminated over the next five years. That’s the goal of the Stop NTDs campaign, an attack on so-called Neglected Tropical Diseases, which disable the poorest one billion people on our planet. The afflictions include river blindness, hookworm, elephantiasis, and schistosomiasis.

A campaign launched in September by former US President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative (CGI) in conjunction with the Washington, DC-based Sabin Vaccine Institute, and professional basketball player Dikembe Mutombo aims to raise 25 million dollars to conquer diseases that blind, disfigure, and kill millions of people living on less than two dollars a day. The President of the Sabin Institute, Dr. Peter Hotez, helped form the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Disease Control. He says that the Sabin Institute and the World Health Organization (WHO) have assembled an affordable package of four medicines being distributed in African countries to halt the spread of the tropical infections.

“The packages are distributed by community-based workers. The way the Global Network works is we have several partners who comprise public and private partnerships that have a long track record of working with health ministries in developing countries and with the community-directed workers. These are predominantly individuals who have access to some of the remote rural areas of developing countries. They are working out in the fields, working out in these rural areas where these diseases occur. And the ministries themselves are doing the actual legwork in terms of getting these drugs out to the poorest people,” he says.

“The drugs are either albendazole or mebendazole, which primarily targets some of the intestinal worms; praziquantil, which targets a worm called schistosomiasis, which is a blood fluke; azithromycin, that targets an eye infection called trachoma; and ivermectin, which targets both river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. So by getting all of those seven neglected tropical diseases, we can through this package deliver it for the poorest people for less than 50 cents a year. So think about it. For 50 cents a year, we can target a group of diseases that are as important as HIV/AIDS or malaria, but at a tiny fraction of the cost. And so we think this is going to be a huge advance for the poorest people in developing countries,” he said.

The Stop NTDs campaign hopes that ties with President Clinton’s Global Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help elevate the visibility of tropical afflictions to attract greater research and funding so that they are not overshadowed by such other monumentally recognized threats as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Hotez credits the Gates Foundation with providing backup support for research on developing medications in the event that tropical diseases become resistant to current treatments. And he credits CGI with helping to level the playing field by focusing equal attention on all illnesses that strike impoverished people in the developing world.

“The Clinton Global Initiative has been very welcoming in terms of trying to elevate the profile of these diseases and give it a forum in front of corporate leaders, global political leaders, as well as a number of Hollywood celebrities,” he points out.

Among these personae, who are lending their support as NTD ambassadors and fundraisers in the global campaign are American TV and movie actress Alyssa Milano, National Basketball Association (NBA) veteran, Congolese-born Dikembe Mutombo of the Houston Rockets, Hollywood action and screen idol Jackie Chan, and from the world of politics, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback.

Many of the high-profile figures appear on a Stop NTDs Campaign internet website, which has been set up for people around the world interested in contributing financially and rallying politically to win greater government support. The web page can be accessed at Peter Hotez says the current 25 million dollar campaign goal can do a lot of good.

“It’s easy to do the math. 25 million dollars (at 50 cents a package). That’s 50 million packages, where 50 million of the poorest people in the world can benefit,” he notes.