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Researchers, USAID Seek More Money To Fight Neglected Tropical Diseases

A laborer tends to a field in the Central African Republic, despite his affliction with river blindness. (File)

U.S. researchers, pharmaceutical companies and government officials say they are making progress in an effort to curb what are called neglected tropical diseases, but that they need more money and outside help. A panel on neglected tropical diseases was held in Washington Thursday.

The president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, Peter Hotez, said neglected tropical diseases get less attention because they do not kill like malaria, HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis.

But he said diseases such as river blindness, roundworm, hookworm and whipworm are very important to tackle as well. Hotez described them as massive disablers for the world's poorest populations. "These neglected tropical diseases by their chronic long-term disabling effects are actually a stealth reason why the bottom billion cannot escape poverty," he said.

Hotez said research has shown these diseases stunt growth, cause memory loss and also lower IQs of affected children. "These are not only the world's leading health problems in terms of how common they are but they are also the world's leading educational problem. Now we know there is actual evidence that chronic hookworm infection in childhood reduces your future wage earning by almost half," he said.

Hotez said he was satisfied the budget for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, to fight these diseases was growing, but that more funding was needed.

He said European countries, private donors and China should also help more.

USAID official Christy Hanson said the infectious disease division she heads is seeking $155 million in the next budget to address neglected tropical diseases. "We are not talking about that these diseases are going to be gone forever. We are trying to knock them down to a level where it is manageable, that we are not having kids malnourished because there are worms in their tummies, but we are going to have to mount surveillance systems and make sure that schools keep treating. We are going to bring them down to a level that they are not a public health emergency," she said.

To wage an effective all-out battle against these diseases, Hanson said over $1 billion over the next five years would be needed.

USAID has been working with governments and non-governmental organizations in targeted countries, as well as U.S. pharmaceutical companies providing effective drug treatment.

Hanson noted recent successes in substantially curbing some of these diseases in Ghana, Uganda and Sierra Leone.
There are dozens of common neglected tropical diseases, but Ken Gustavsen, the director of Global Health Partnerships with the Merck pharmaceutical group, said it was important to work on a case by case basis.

He cited a drug-based approach to combat river blindness in South American countries such as Colombia and Ecuador. "More than 40 percent of the area that was previously endemic in Latin America, transmission has now been eliminated," he said.

River blindness which is transmitted to humans through the bite of a blackfly causes debilitating itching, skin lesions and eye disease.

Panelists said drug-based approaches were the most effective currently, and that research indicates sanitary measures did little to reduce these many, harmful neglected tropical diseases.