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US Group Targets Neglected Tropical Diseases

Earlier this year, President Bush said the United States would spend $350 million over five years to fight seven of the world's most common parasitic and bacterial diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people in tropical regions of the world. A Washington-based global health network is urging Congress to fully fund the initiative, and encouraging other developed nations to join the effort. VOA's Michael Bowman reports.

Battles against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis regularly grab international headlines and are the focus of multi-billion dollar global health initiatives. But many other diseases are equally widespread and cause massive suffering in scores of countries, yet rarely seem to capture the world's attention. Called "neglected tropical diseases", they include river blindness, elephantiasis, snail fever, and hookworm, roundworm and whipworm.

A U.S.-based group is fighting to change what it perceives as an imbalance in the world's focus on health matters. The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases has a new high-profile advocate: former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who will be serving as the organization's global ambassador.

"Neglected tropical diseases -- they are really from biblical times," he said. "But they affect one billion people in the world. One out of six people that are currently alive, and it is the billion that are the poorest. The billion that really have no chance to improve unless we, as a society, get involved."

Thompson was speaking at a news conference in Washington.

Neglected Tropical Diseases, or NTPs, generally do not cause death, but often lead to disfigurement, extreme pain, and incapacity. Health officials say, in India alone, billions of dollars in economic activity are lost every year to NTPs. The diseases can also make people more susceptible to other, more deadly afflictions, such as HIV.

The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases is targeting 14 NTPs worldwide, all of which are readily treatable at a minimal cost.

"Fifty cents [half a US dollar] per person per year is all we need in order to defeat these neglected tropical diseases. That is not heavy lifting [not a financial burden]," said Thompson.

Thompson says major pharmaceutical companies have already agreed to provide drugs targeting NTPs free of charge. As a result, the primary costs of waging a global NTP initiative would be in transporting and administering the medicines.