1.The burden of the neglected diseases
While “the big three” infections AIDS, TB and malaria have caught the world’s attention, other disabling and fatal infectious diseases in Africa are being ignored. Sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, leprosy, helminthiasis, trachoma, leishmaniasis, Buruli ulcers, schistomiaisis and yaws are among neglected diseases that still ravage lives covertly.
These disabling and sometimes fatal infectious diseases called Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) are caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and other parasites and are major causes of death, disability, and social and economic disruption for millions of people in the South. Until very recently, they have been receiving relatively little attention from researchers, pharmaceutical companies, donors, policymakers and public health officials.
Despite the existence of safe and effective interventions for some of these diseases, many people lack access to preventive care and treatment. Over 1 billion people, about one-sixth of the world’s population, are infected with one or more NTDs. These diseases affect mainly people living on less than $2 a day in remote, rural areas, urban slums, or conflict zones, a scenario made worse by inaccessibility or unavailability of healthcare for timely and effective treatment. Yet, these diseases rarely feature on national or regional poverty eradication strategies.
Over 9.5 million people die each year of infectious diseases – nearly all live in developing countries. The lost productivity, missed educational opportunities and high health-care costs caused by infectious diseases directly impact on families and communities.
According to World Health Organization, 60 million people are at risk of infection with sleeping sickness in Africa; 300,000 new cases occur annually, but due to negligence less than 30,000 cases are reported. A number of tropical infections are endemic in low-income populations in the South. In Sub-Saharan Africa the impact of these diseases as a group is comparable to malaria and tuberculosis.
The most disheartening aspect of this problem is that for some of the diseases preventive measures or acute medical treatments exist which are available in the developed world but which are not universally available in poorer areas. To eradicate these diseases, as they have been eradicated in the developed world, it needs just a little good will from governments. Researchers argue that a “rapid impact package” – distribution of four anti-parasitic drugs across Africa to treat seven neglected diseases – would bring tangible benefits to the world’s poorest communities.
Some of these diseases have treatments relatively inexpensive. For example, the treatment for schistosomiasis (bilharzia, bilharziosis or snail fever) is USD $0.20 per child per year. Nevertheless, control of neglected diseases is estimated to require funding of between US$2 billion to US$3 billion over the next five to seven years. Beyond their negative impact on health, neglected diseases contribute to an ongoing cycle of poverty and stigma that leaves people unable to work, go to school or participate in family and community life. Africa continues to pay a handsome price for neglecting these diseases that are silently stealing the strides made in economic growth.
High levels of illiteracy reduce the disease perception index, shrouding them in the belief in witchcraft. Conflicts and political instabilities perpetuate the flare- up of these diseases, by making opportune intervention useless, and by hindering eradication, which calls for a regional approach. Past outbreaks of sleeping sickness have closely been associated with civil unrests in Uganda, Angola and DR Congo.
2. The difficulty of treatment
These diseases fall outside the scope of the pharmaceutical industry’s research and medicine development efforts. Neglected diseases mainly affect the poorest people in developing countries. They are the diseases which do not represent a commercially viable market for pharmaceutical companies because those affected do not have the purchasing power to afford treatment. Companies therefore shirk away from investing in risky and expensive research and drug development for these conditions.
Other neglected diseases (HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria), more familiar because they also hit people in wealthier countries, were still neglected some years ago but have caught the world’s attention and a big effort has been made. Foundations, NGOs and Global Funds have funded the treatment of millions in the developing world, thus making a commercially viable market. Yet many of those affected with these diseases throughout the world do not have access to safe and affordable diagnostics, drugs or vaccines.
In the late 1990s the production of several drugs that did exist to treat these neglected diseases was halted altogether or put under threat. Concerted public and political pressure managed to salvage several important medicines such as eflornithine for African sleeping sickness and benznidazole and nifurtimox for Chagas disease.
However these successes have only brought limited improvements to treatment. For example eflornithine, a treatment for sleeping sickness, although less toxic than the medicine most widely used, melarsoprol, requires multiple infusions on a daily basis. And the drugs used to treat Chagas disease, benznidazole and nifurtimox, are only useful for treating the disease in its early stages. There is an urgent need for better drugs, coupled with better diagnostic tools.
Today, there is scarce access to diagnostics and the medicines that do exist are unaffordable, have more side effects, and are difficult to administer in resource-poor settings.
3. Towards a solution
That these diseases remain neglected is a direct result of the inadequacies of the current profit-driven drug development system which steers research and medicines development (R&D) into areas of market profitability rather than health needs.
Currently, different initiatives are being undertaken to search for a solution to the neglected diseases.
In 2003, Doctors without Borders (MSF) co-founded the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) to develop new drugs for patients suffering from the most neglected diseases. They dedicated the money from their Nobel Prize to initiate and coordinate drug research and medicine development projects in collaboration with the international research community, the public sector, the pharmaceutical industry, and other relevant partners. In March 2007, DNDI launched its first product, a combination malaria therapy, ASAQ.
The European Commission has supported research on neglected infectious diseases as part of the EU’s international research cooperation since the early 1980s. In 1994 the International Cooperation (INCO) program for research was one of the first international initiatives to fund collaborative research in neglected infectious diseases. From 1997 to 2006, the European Commission supported 55 Neglected Infectious Diseases Research projects, and 27 more from 2002-2006, covering a wide range of neglected infectious diseases such as leishmaniasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis, trypanosomiasis, dengue and haemorrhagic fever, echinococcosis, buruli ulcer, childhood infections as well as health systems and health service issues of disease control. At present, 46 countries outside the European Union are participating in those research programs, providing a wide range of important research results. They have also helped to link up academic institutions, public authorities, private enterprises, NGOs, and other stakeholders in new networks and research partnerships across countries and sectors.
In 2006 and 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the Neglected Communicable (Tropical) Diseases were one of the key areas of concern. Of the 14 neglected diseases identified by WHO, 4 are specifically highlighted as being the most neglected and requiring “Innovative Disease Management” (IDM): sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, leishmaniasis, and Buruli ulcer. Except for Buruli ulcers, they have the highest fatality rates of all neglected diseases.
These diseases are particularly challenging to control due to poorly understood disease burdens, difficult and costly management (diagnosis, treatment, follow-up), inadequate research and medicine development investment, and the often remote or insecure location of the affected populations.
To enhance the control of neglected diseases, the WHO promoted Innovative Disease Management whose aim is to allow these diseases to be easily managed within the primary health-care system and ultimately eliminated them as a public health problem. The IDM advocates for health service development in affected areas and aims to encourage the rapid development and implementation of better control tools and to ensure the full involvement of national control programs. It focuses specifically on those challenges mentioned in the previous paragraph.
UNITAID (the international drug purchasing facility) has set up the Medicines Patent Pool Foundation, able to negotiate with the makers of key drugs to secure access to their intellectual property. This would facilitate competition and hence lower prices, since several different manufacturers could pay the royalty and then access the intellectual property in the “pool” to make drugs for sale in developing countries. The ‘one-stop shop’ for intellectual property would also enable innovation as it would be simpler and cheaper for researchers and drug manufacturers to access different patents needed to create new fixed-dose combinations, including badly needed ones for children.
A patent pool brings together (“pools”) multiple patents belonging to different owners and makes them available to third parties against the payment of a royalty. Pharmaceutical companies have drawn fire for fiercely backing patents that blocked cheaper competitors, even in the poorest countries, where brand-name medicines were unaffordable.
The initial focus of the Pool will be on increasing access to newer antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) and encouraging the development of adapted formulations. The Pool aims to reduce the price of existing ARVs and stimulate the production of newer first- and second-line ARVs by increasing the number of generic producers of these medicines. The pool will also help to fill the gap for “missing essential ARVs”, such as fixed-dose combinations of newer products and special formulations for children.
South Africa has established a new “patent pool” to work on new drugs for tuberculosis and malaria, making it the first government to take advantage of this idea.
The South African pool now includes a number of patents and resources from different firms: The GlaxoSmithKline pool, set up in 2009 contains more than 2,300 patents; the Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, the Emory Institute for Drug Discovery and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have agreed to contribute to the pool. All this material is available for use by industry, non-profit groups and academic researchers to develop new medicines for malaria, cholera and more than a dozen other diseases. The pool provides not only free use of patents, but also know-how and expertise.
The South African government intends to use this pool to promote the production of new drugs to address in the first place TB, a devastating disease in the region. In South Africa, 200,000 people are infected with HIV and 1,500 people die of TB every day. The South African Technology Innovation Agency will coordinate and nurture drug development among local companies, including the South African firm iThemba Pharmaceuticals, which has already announced plans to use the pool to do research into new TB drugs.
It is expected that among all these initiatives solutions will be proposed to fight the neglected diseases, and make their treatment accessible to those who need it, wherever they are and whatever their economic situation.
By Begoña Iñarra, posted July 6, 2010
Source: Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network
web: www.aeafjn.org