The biggest global health program you’ve never heard of – NTDs | 

Nigerian woman with long-term effects of the parasitic river blindness
Nigerian woman with long-term effects of the parasitic river blindness
Mike Urban

What if you could treat a poor person in Africa to cure or prevent seven horrible afflictions – river blindness, hookworm, elephantiasis, trachoma, snail fever and two other parasitic worm diseases – for only 50 cents?

Better yet, what if the drug industry could be compelled to give more than a billion of the planet’s poorest people worldwide life-saving and curative drugs for free?

Well, you can and they were.

One of the world’s biggest efforts aimed at fighting the most neglected diseases of poverty has been underway for a few years now. Chances are, you know very little about it – which may be thanks to this massive project getting launched in 2012 with an incredibly boring name, the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Uff da. The global health community desperately needs help with branding.

“It’s actually incredibly exciting,” said Julie Jacobson, a physician and program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I ran into Jacobson, whom I’ve known for many years and who always seems both happy and excited, when we were commuting in opposite directions via bicycle in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood a while ago. We didn’t actually collide, but I did make her stop to see what she was up to. Continue reading

Gates initiative on “neglected diseases” advances cause, but neglects key questions | 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced, together with more than a dozen drug makers and others, a new initiative aimed at fighting a select group of mostly developing world ailments called “neglected tropical diseases” such as river blindness, parasitic elephantiasis and others.

Uniting to Combat NTDs

These diseases affect an estimated 1.4 billion people, killing perhaps half a million a year, but have not been high on the global health radar screen. As Dr. Peter Hotez writes for Huffington Post, for only 50 cents per child many of these diseases may now be eliminated.

The new public-private initiative aims to rid the world of 10 of these diseases by 2020.

It’s widely regarded as a positive step forward for global health, but there are some important questions that went unanswered:

  1. What is a neglected disease? This is actually a hotly debated question in global health circles right now.
  2. Many think the solution to fighting diseases of poverty should be to focus on poverty as much as on disease. Will this initiative get at the root problem or just address symptoms?

We’ll get back to the neglected issues of neglected diseases in a bit. First, more on the news:

For this initiative called the London Declaration on Neglected Diseases, the Gates Foundation pledged $363 million to support research into new treatments. Drug makers like GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and others have likewise pledged to step up research as well as to expand donation programs of medications to poor countries.

Others involved in the initiative include the World Bank, the United Arab Emirates as well as the U.S. and U.K. governments The total estimated commitment is $785 million. Continue reading

Old drug could be a big new deal for fight against malaria | 

Flickr, Gustavo

This scientific finding got a little bit of media attention, but deserves more:

A cheap drug, called Ivermectin (or brand name Mectizan), that Merck originally made for dogs may become a useful new weapon against one of the world’s biggest killers, malaria.

It was discovered many years ago that this drug also works against other parasitic worms that cause river blindness (onchocerciasis) and elephantiasis (filariasis). Merck, apparently unaware that it is supposed to be an evil drug company, has for more than 15 years been donating this drug to poor countries in Africa to fight these debilitating diseases.

Malaria is also caused by a parasite. In a study funded by a Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations grant, researchers at Colorado State University explored if the drug might also work against the malaria bug.

The study is published in this week’s American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (which you can’t read because the scientific publishing community thinks they can get you pay to read it … and which may account for the relatively low number of news articles on this amazing discovery).

Here are a few other reports of note on this:

Karen Grepin’s Global Health Blog Maybe Now People Will Care About Onchocerciasis

Bill Brieger’s Malaria Free Future blog Novel idea, but can it be scaled?

Foot note: Millions suffer simply for lack of shoes | 

Flickr, poppalina

Millions of bare feet prove we still aren’t reaching the very poorest of the poor.

The international community is doing a lot to help the world’s poor — spending billions of dollars (not enough, but still billions) to combat AIDS, TB and malaria, doing research, figuring out clever new uses of cell phones to help subsistence farmers increase productivity and getting microfinance loans to poor women.

And yet, millions of people worldwide suffer disfigurement and disability simply for a lack of shoes?

Gail Davey

Foot with podoconiosis

The disease I’m talking about is called podoconiosis and, chances are, you haven’t heard of it. It is a much lesser-known cause of elephantiasis (see right, a condition also caused by mosquito-borne parasitic worms) that one researcher believes may nevertheless afflict more than 4 million people worldwide. Continue reading