Neglected tropical diseases

WHO rolls out new combination treatment for sleeping sickness

09 November 2009 | Geneva

©Dr P. Simarro/WHO-NTD

The World Health Organization (WHO) has started the distribution of a new combination of drugs to treat human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), also called sleeping sickness. The first 1000 treatment kits of the nifurtimox-eflornithine combination therapy (NECT) reached the port of Matadi in the Democratic Republic of Congo last Friday.

"We have started distribution in The Democratic Republic of Congo, which reports almost 75% of all cases of sleeping sickness in Africa. This has been made possible due to the close collaboration of the national health authorities" said Dr Pere Simarro, Medical Officer in charge of the WHO human African trypanosomiasis programme in Geneva.

The distribution of the nifurtimox and eflornithine combination comes almost five months after WHO included it in its Model List of Essential Medicines. Nifurtimox is widely used in the treatment of American trypanosomiasis, also known as Chagas disease, and successful clinical trials have demonstrated its safety and efficacy used in combination with eflornithine in the treatment of human African trypanosomiasis. However, nifurtimox is not registered for use in the treatment of sleeping sickness and its distribution is subject to approval by respective ministries of health in endemic countries.

Bayer Schering Pharma which manufactures nifurtimox signed an agreement with WHO in September 2009 to provide free of charge 400 000 tablets of the drug per year over the next five years. This is in addition to a donation of eflornithine by sanofi-aventis.

" The availability of this new drug combination is a milestone as it offers a great opportunity to treat sleeping sickness. We should also improve control and surveillance to enable a sustainable management of the disease" added Dr Simarro.

In order to facilitate the use and distribution of this new combination of drugs, WHO has also planned to provide training to essential staff in major endemic countries by the end of this month.