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Experts Meet in Kenya to Discuss Aid for 'Neglected' Diseases

A conference designed to combat the world's most neglected diseases opened in Kenya Thursday. Some 250 researchers from 24 African countries are discussing how best to develop and fund drugs for these maladies, which most commonly hit the very poor in developing countries.

Sleeping sickness, malaria and kala azar - a parasitic, potentially fatal disease that attacks major internal organs - are among those conditions dubbed "neglected diseases" because the development of cures for these conditions receives scant attention and money from governments and drug companies, say experts.

A doctor with the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, Unni Karunakara, explains that one reason for this neglect is the low purchasing power of those infected with the diseases.

"We all here understand that market forces have sort-of failed people who are suffering from neglected diseases. Big companies have not stepped up to the problems that are being faced by this continent," he said.

In some cases, says the director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute Dr. Davy Koech, there are too few people suffering from an ailment to make investment in a cure not economically worthwhile to some.

"When you think about it, we had a number of cases [of kala azar]," explained Dr. Koech. "Now, do you expect somebody, even a wealthy individual, to pour in $40 million in order to find a new treatment for kala azar, because you're only going to treat probably 1,000 Kenyans. So is that worth it? This is some of the considerations that some of the companies usually put in place."

These are some of many obstacles researchers from Africa and around the world are facing as they grapple with how to manufacture and fund the drugs to combat these illnesses at their three-day conference, organized by the not-for-profit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI).

DNDI Executive Director Dr. Bernard Pecoul describes how many people suffering from neglected diseases have been squeezed out of the estimated $600 billion global pharmaceutical market.

"Between 1975 and 2004, a lot of new drugs had been developed, more than 1,500. But only 21 of these drugs were representing some interests for the tropical diseases and tuberculosis, which account for 12 percent of the global disease burden," he said.

He says DNDI's aim is to bring new, affordable treatment to patients suffering from neglected diseases using the best science and expertise in the scientific field.

The organization is aiming to develop up to eight new and improved drugs for sleeping sickness, kala azar, and others by 2014.