by Baroness Helene Hayman
In an age when sophisticated medical breakthroughs routinely redefine what we once thought was possible, a humble set of pills serves as a reminder that low-tech heath interventions can have a massive impact on much of the world’s population, particularly those living in extreme poverty.
Nearly 40 years ago, William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura found that a drug used to treat parasites in animals could be adapted to treat people for two devastating parasitic diseases, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), ultimately resulting in the creation of the drug ivermectin. For their achievements, Drs. Campbell and Ōmura shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with another groundbreaking researcher, Tu Youyou, who discovered the first drug treatment for malaria.
Ivermectin has since become part of an array of safe and effective drugs that treat a range of parasitic and bacterial diseases, commonly known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which also include hookworm, ascariasis, trichuriasis, schistosomiasis and trachoma.
Today, we are on the cusp of controlling and eliminating several NTDs in countries around the world using these simple, low-cost drugs, which are being donated by the billions from pharmaceutical companies.
The United States and the United Kingdom have demonstrated remarkable leadership and commitment to the fight against NTDs through the support of the 2012 London Declaration, which calls for the control or elimination of ten NTDs by 2020. Germany put neglected and poverty-related diseases in the spotlight by including them as a key discussion item at this year’s G7 Summit. And the recent announcement of the Ross Fund — a £1 billion fund for malaria and other infectious diseases, including NTDs, created by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — is another step in the right direction.
Reaching the 2020 control and elimination targets for NTDs set by the World Health Organization would be one of the greatest public health victories of our time, but we are at risk of letting this potential triumph slip through our fingers if urgent action is not taken for more countries to join the United States, United Kingdom and Germany in supporting global NTD programs.
It comes down to this: governments — of both donor and endemic countries — must dedicate more funding to ensure that donated drugs reach at-risk communities on a timely and consistent basis. Given the links that NTDs have with HIV/AIDS and malaria, now is the time to have a sensible discussion about including NTDs as part of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The best news is that, largely due to the generosity of the pharmaceutical companies, the gap for funding global NTD programs is remarkably small — estimated at only $US220 million per year for the next five years. In a time of economic austerity, investing in this global health bargain would deliver transformative results, ridding a billion people of the daily burden of preventable parasitic diseases while providing real hope for significant improvements in economic development and equity.
Baroness Helene Hayman is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and NTDs, and a Trustee of Sabin Foundation Europe.