GENEVA - Governments and private donors have pledged $812 million to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) at a five-day summit convened to advance efforts to fight river blindness, sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis and other disabling diseases of poverty.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation kicked off proceedings Tuesday at a special event. The champagne was flowing as leaders from governments, pharmaceutical companies, and charitable organizations gathered to celebrate the achievements of the 2012 London Declaration.
That landmark agreement produced a road map for the control, elimination and eradication of 10 of the world's 18 NTDs by the end of the decade.
"This is an exciting milestone in global health, which is the fifth anniversary of the 2012 London Declaration about neglected diseases," said Bill Gates, Foundation CEO.
"There are a number of these diseases. They are quite horrific. They affect the poorest of the poor. Part of the reason they have been neglected is because they are in mostly tropical countries," he said.
NTDs affect 1.6 billion people in 149 countries, including more than one-half billion children. They kill about 170,000 people yearly and cause untold suffering for millions of men, women and children who are disfigured, disabled, stigmatized and unable to work their way out of poverty.
In keeping with its commitment to tackle neglected tropical diseases, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is contributing $335 million in grants to support programs over the next four years focused on "drug development and delivery, disease surveillance and vector control."
While goals for eliminating NTDs have not all been met, Gates said great progress has been made over the past five years.
"Some of these diseases are on track to be done by 2020, some by 2025, some will take longer than that. But, in areas like sleeping sickness — great results, great tools and just the level of sophistication being put together here.
"Part of what has enabled it is the unbelievable drug donations," said Gates.
Since 2012, pharmaceutical companies have donated 7 billion treatments, an "incredible commitment," which Gates said was cause for celebration.
"They have given away these drugs in very, very large quantities and what we have seen is that the limitations thereabout — the lead times, the volumes where they were available, how long they would be available — those have gone away over the last five years.
"So now we can assume that part and focus is on the delivery, the financing for the delivery, the quality of the delivery. And because of that we have made huge progress," he said.
The World Health Organization cites what it calls remarkable achievements in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.
It reports that nearly 1 billion people annually have been receiving drugs to prevent one or more NTDs.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 40 percent of these diseases are concentrated, the WHO notes the development of non-toxic drugs for African sleeping sickness have reduced the number of cases of the deadly disease from 37,000 in 1999 to well under 3,000 cases in 2015.
Other successes include the elimination of trachoma, the world's leading infectious cause of blindness in Oman, Morocco and Mexico. Guinea-worm disease is on track for eradication as only 25 human cases of the disease remain.
Edridah Muheki Tukahebwa, NTD program manager in Uganda's Ministry of Health, told a packed audience attending the Gates event that her country was leading in the elimination of NTDs in Africa, especially in Onchocerciasis or river blindness.
She said a great deal has been achieved since Uganda started a program to control the disease in the early 1990s.
"Of 4.9 million people who were at risk of contracting river blindness, 3.4 million of them are now protected. And the communities that used to be harassed by the black fly bites are now settled, very vibrant and productive.
"With all of this, it is a national priority to eliminate NTDs, including Onchocerciasis or river blindness," she said.
Pharmaceutical companies offer pledges
Pledges were made at the event by CEOs of pharmaceutical companies including Eisai, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi, Merck and Gilead to continue drug donations, respectively, for Lymphatic filariasis, leprosy, trachoma, sleeping sickness, river blindness, and leishmaniasis until their particular NTD was eliminated.
Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, called this a game-changing event, noting that drug donations amounted to $20 billion to $30 billion a year.
She told VOA that a lot has been achieved in the last five years.
"By working together, we have reached 1 billion people with NTD, and these are a group of diseases that shackle people in poverty. Not just the current generation, but their children.
"One billion people have been helped in 2015 alone… so, this is already a game-changer," she said.
While recognizing that more remains to be done before these terrible diseases are eliminated, Chan said when that goal is achieved "it will be truly, truly amazing."