Members of Congress are calling on the U.S. development agency to increase funding for the treatment of four tropical diseases.

Thirteen lawmakers have sent a letter to USAID about leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, Chagas disease and Buruli ulcer, which are in the group referred to as ?neglected diseases.?

?We?re thrilled.  We?re absolutely thrilled,? says Jana Armstrong of the congressional support. Armstrong is executive director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi). She adds,? Earlier this year, they had offered to do this.?

DNDi had briefed members of Congress and the administration on the need for more funding.

Four of fourteen

Armstrong says the request centers on four diseases that DNDi and the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders have concentrated on in recent years.

Jana Armstrong, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initi
Jana Armstrong, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative

?We would like that all neglected tropical diseases get included in the U.S. programs, but we can?t speak to specifics on the other ones because we don?t have personal experience as organizations.?

The World Health Organization lists 14 diseases as ?neglected.?  It says, ?They thrive in places with unsafe water, poor sanitation and limited access to basic health care.  Most can be prevented and eliminated.?

It?s estimated more than one billion people are affected.

?We pull those four out,? Armstrong says, ?but also those four are what?s considered by the World Health Organization as the most neglected because they affect the populations that are somehow the most marginalized in many developing countries.  And three of the four are almost always deadly if not treated.?

It?s unclear how much extra funding USAID might approve for the neglected diseases because the of the recession, she says.

?It will be tough to talk about a lot of additional funding.  We recognize that.?

But she adds, ?The most important is to get this issue recognized in policy and get Congress and the administration open to looking at neglected tropical diseases as a bigger picture than the seven diseases that they?ve chosen to focus on in the beginning,? she says.

Risky treatments

?They have treatments today.  They exist, but they really need new treatments.  Nobody has invested in this area for 40, 50 years.  You can imagine the kind of treatments that we were using 40 or 50 years ago,? says the DnDi executive director.

The treatment for sleeping sickness, for example, is based on arsenic.  

?When you?re weighing the risks of someone dying anyway from the disease or treating them with the easiest thing to treat them with, you?re probably going to treat them.  But you know as a doctor you?re going to kill part of the people that you treat.  So it?s not a very nice option,? she says.  

Because victims are usually very poor, says the WHO, they have a ?low profile and status in public health priorities.?