Bill Gates, Big Pharma and WHO unite to eradicate Neglected Tropical Diseases

Vulnerable but Treatable

Bill Gates, Big Pharma and WHO unite to eradicate NTDs

By Ilene Schneider

About a billion and a half poor and vulnerable people in Africa, Asia and Latin America suffer from one of 18 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Western countries and drug companies, one billion of them – half of whom are children – are receiving treatment for diseases that blind, disable and disfigure millions of poor people in tropical areas each year, according to a story published by Reuters on Tuesday.

Drawing inspiration from the World Health Organization (WHO) “Roadmap for Implementation”, which outlined bold targets for the control, elimination or eradication of NTDs by 2020, leaders of several prominent global health and development organizations, together with industry partners, met in London in 2012 and pledged to unite in their efforts to support the achievement of the WHO 2020 goals to eradicate 10 NTDs. These diseases had essential ingredients for immediate support. Five of them can be controlled through what is known as mass drug administration — large-scale population treatment with safe and effective medicines. The other five can be controlled by innovative and intensified disease management (IDM) — individual diagnosis and treatment, surgery where needed, care and rehabilitation of infected individuals.

These collective promises of support were formalized into the London Declaration on NTDs, prompting the creation of a coalition of partners called Uniting to Combat NTDs. Since then, partners have been working alongside WHO and national programs to address the neglected disease burden in some of the world’s hardest to reach areas and tracking their progress towards the 2020 goals through an annual scorecard.

As Gates said at a Global partners meeting at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, "The best thing with these diseases is not to debate whether they are neglected or not, but to proceed to make them history. We need a broader, deeper bench of investors... so that by 2030 we can achieve the goal of reaching 90 percent of the people who need treatment. I know this is achievable."

Gates has supported the initiative for more than a decade with $1 billion. Now he has pledged $335 million over the next 4 years. That includes $42 million to help wipe out Guinea-worm disease, a crippling disease transmitted by contaminated water. It can lead to a 40-inch worm growing in the body.

According to Gates, "Guinea worm is one of our great success stories. Even though we're not absolutely at zero, we are down to very small numbers. Thirty years ago over 3 million people in over 20 countries were afflicted." 

Only 25 cases of Guinea-worm disease were reported in six countries last year, "putting eradication within reach", said WHO. Mosquito-or fly-borne diseases include dengue, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and sleeping sickness. They are spreading from rural areas to urban slums, the WHO warned.

GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi are among major donors to the program. Merck said it was developing a children's formula of its drug to treat schistosomiasis, a parasitic worm disease that kills 280,000 a year in Africa. Lord Bates, Britain's Minister of State for International Development, said the UK government was committing an additional 250 million pounds ($321.35 million) to NTD programs.  Belgium's deputy prime minister Alexander de Croo pledged 25 million euros ($26.81 million) through 2025 to erase African sleeping sickness.

“We believe that, working together, we can meet our goals by 2020 and chart a new course toward health and sustainability among the world’s poorest communities to a stronger, healthier future,” the London Declaration said.