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Health Experts Seek Help in Combating 'Neglected' Diseases in Developing Countries - 2004-02-07

Some hundred health experts from two dozen countries met in Penang, northern Malaysia in an effort to draw attention to what is seen as inadequate research on disease treatments in the developing world.

Delegates are concerned millions of people are dying each year from illnesses that modern science could cure.

Delegates belong to the Neglected Diseases Group and they say governments and researchers need to devote more resources to finding new cures for diseases common in the developing world.

These diseases kill millions of people each year. They include malaria, tuberculosis, meningitis, sleeping sickness, dengue fever and leishmaniasis.

The director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, Dr. Bernard Pecoul, says in the past 25 years more than 1,200 new medicines have been developed. But only 16 of these, less than one percent, were to treat tuberculosis and tropical illnesses. In addition, he says, of the estimated $60 billion spent annually on research and development of new medicines, less than five percent is spent on these neglected diseases.

"There is this huge gap between the progress that science has been able to make during the last 20 years and the translation into concrete tools to improve quality of life of people," he said.

One of the organizers of the conference is Doctors Without Borders. The head of its Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, Ellen t'Hoen, says the choices on which new medicines to develop are being made increasingly by large multinational corporations.

"As a result, the new drugs that are being developed, the investments that are being made in health research and development more and more follow the direction of where profits can be made, which is not necessarily the same as where the health needs are," she said.

As a result, she explains, new medicines are emerging for diseases like cancer, diabetes, asthma and hypertension, which afflict people primarily in the industrialized world. This is good, she says, but a lot of effort is also going into medicines for less threatening conditions, like baldness and sexual dysfunction.

Dr. Pecoul says this lack of attention is due not only to market failure but also to public policy failure.

"Usually in a society, when a market is not working, we need to have investment from the public sector to compensate for the most vulnerable people, for the most disadvantaged people. And it's not the case," he said.

Ms. t'Hoen says two key questions need to be answered. The first is how to set better priorities for health research.

"Question No. 2 is, how can we find better ways of financing research and development? The model at the moment, which is through higher drug prices, delivers some research and development," she said. "But only people in wealthy countries benefit from that."

Dr. Pecoul says that the private sector must also be stimulated to participate, because without it progress will be slow. "These private partners have a lot of molecules, a lot of products in their libraries that they are not using at all. So what we'll try to have is access to these products and try to move these products into the research process," he said.

Delegates say there is a lot of waste in the system and there are less costly ways to develop new medicines.

In addition, they want developing nations to participate more actively in the process. For, although they may not have the resources to produce the next blockbuster drugs, they can contribute ideas on how to improve their people's health and develop new models for reaching that goal.