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WHO marks turning point for 1 billion people

Partners commit to global action against forgotten diseases

WHO and key partners are meeting on Thursday and Friday to demonstrate an unprecedented commitment to combat the so-called neglected tropical diseases. This commitment comes from political leaders and ministries of health in affected countries, from development agencies and banks, foundations, scientists, and some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies.

Most of the neglected diseases are caused by parasites that thrive in impoverished settings, where water supply, sanitation, and housing are poor. Apart from this strong link to poverty, the diseases form a group because they permanently deform and disable large numbers of poor people, trapping them in poverty.

Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people – one sixth of the world’s population – are affected by one or more of these diseases. Recent evidence of their severe impact on socioeconomic development has spurred unprecedented commitment to reduce this burden. Control of these diseases is now considered part of the global drive to reduce poverty.

“This event marks a turning point in the long and notorious history of some of humanity’s oldest diseases,” the WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, said in her opening address. “The burden imposed by these diseases, measured in terms of human misery alone, is unacceptable. We are committed to take action.”

Safe and effective drugs available

Most of these diseases were once present across a wide area, but gradually disappeared as standards of living and hygiene improved. The availability of safe and effective drugs in large quantities makes it possible, for the first time in history, to take immediate action against these diseases, without having to wait for gradual improvements.

The Vice President of the United Republic of Tanzania, His Excellency Dr Ali Mohamed Shein, told the meeting, "I would like to emphasize that all these diseases are not neglected, in any way, by the developing countries… We, in Tanzania, for example have recognized, since the dawn of independence, that health status and health service delivery are the core of socio-economic development. We have waged a protracted war against all diseases, which are regarded as a hindrance to development, alongside poverty and ignorance."

As these diseases affect large numbers of very poor people, the decision by industry to supply drugs for prevention or treatment at low or no cost has also been decisive in turning the tide.

During the meeting on Thursday, Dr Chan and Merck KGaA's Executive Board Member, Mr Elmar Schnee, signed an agreement aimed at fighting schistosomiasis.

A donation of 200 million tablets of the drug praziquantel will be given to WHO, with an estimated market value of US$80 million. The agreement could potentially protect millions of children from schistosomiasis, a parasitic worm disease which affects about 180 million people, most of them children in Africa. The 10-year collaboration will boost WHO's schistosomiasis treatment efforts targeted at least developed countries where the disease is highly endemic.

"This disease is one of the biggest health risks to African children after malaria and this collaboration ensures the chance of a healthy life in countries marked by diseases of poverty," said Mr Schnee.

New drug strategy

Cost-effective tools to eliminate several of the neglected tropical diseases exist, some costing as little as 50 US cents per person. Last year, WHO launched a new strategy to improve the simultaneous control of several of the diseases.

With this Preventive Chemotherapy (PCT) Strategy, a combination of three vital drugs is used to prevent and control a range of parasitic worm diseases all at one time. WHO had secured access to two drugs crucial to the PCT strategy, albendazole and ivermectin. With the agreement signed today, WHO has also secured praziquantel, the drug long considered to be the strategy's "missing link".

Substantial progress has already been made in the fight to control and eliminate many neglected tropical diseases: The number of leprosy cases has decreased from 5.2 million in 1985 to less than 220 000 cases today and 14.5 million people have been cured of this disease. Guinea worm disease is set for eradication. Previously, only one disease - smallpox - has ever been eradicated.

This agreement with Merck is the latest in a series of collaborations with the private sector to support the control and possible elimination of the neglected tropical diseases. A list of similar collaborative projects follows below. The meeting this week will set out the next steps required to provide prevention and treatment of the neglected tropical diseases to all who need them and to work towards the elimination of the diseases.

List of donated medicines from other partners

Donation Disease
Albendazole from GlaxoSmithKline Lymphatic filariasis
Azithromycin from Pfizer Trachoma
Eflornithine from Sanofi-Aventis Human African trypanosomiasis
Ivermectin from Merk & Co. Inc. Directly to countries (lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis)
Multi-Drug Therapy from Novartis Leprosy
Mebendazole from Johnson & Johnson Soil transmitted helminthiasis
Melarsoprol from Sanofi-Aventis Human African trypanosomiasis
Nifurtimox from Bayer HC For Human African trypanosomiasis (clinical trial only) and for treatment of Chagas disease
Pentamidine from Sanofi-Aventis Human African trypanosomiasis
Suramine from Bayer Human African trypanosomiasis
For further information, please contact:

Tiffany Domingo
WHO, Geneva
Tel: +41 22 791 15 40
Mobile: +41 79 516 31 36

Gregory Hartl
Communications Adviser
WHO, Geneva
Tel: +41 22 791 4458
Mobile: +41 79 203 6715