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Inside Story

Neglecting the diseases of the poor

Is private funding of pharmaceutical drugs the only way to ensure access to treatment for the world’s poorest patients?

What are known as “Neglected Tropical Diseases” (NTD) are no longer neglected.

I welcome the continuous donations by the pharmaceutical industry but I would really challenge them to do more in research and development. We know that only one per cent of drugs developed since the mid-1970s have been for all the tropical diseases and Tuberculosis put together, let alone the NTD.”

– Tido von Schoen-Angerer, the director of the MSF Access Campaign

On Tuesday, a number of global organisations, including 13 pharmaceutical companies, major charities and research groups including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) signed an initiative to combat NTD.

It is being billed as the largest coordinated effort yet to fight some of the planet’s most debilitating diseases – diseases that until now have largely been ignored.

An estimated $785m has been pledged to counter NTD, which receives relatively little funding in comparison to Malaria and HIV/AIDS, with the aim of wiping out, or at least controlling, some of these deadliest conditions.

A new plan has now been drawn up to combat 10 of 17 NTD over the next decade, involving a dramatic increase in drugs and treatment programmes.

NTD affect about one billion people or 15 per cent of the world population, and kill more than 500,000 people each year in the world’s poorest countries.

Drug-makers have been criticised in the past for not doing enough to fight the diseases of the poor as they concentrate instead on conditions more prevalent in rich nations, such as high cholesterol.

Some of the drugs developed for NTD are quite obsolete. There are other good drugs but they have been market failures where the affected people don’t even have the few cents needed to pay for them. The only way to ensure access is to have a dialogue and [through] finding solutions together with the private sector.”

– Lorenzo Savioli, the director of the Department of Control of NTD at the WHO

So, what are NTD? Scientists have classified a range of 13 parasitic, bacterial and worm infections which flourish in areas with poor water quality and inadequate sanitation. They can cause disfigurement, disability, organ damage and often death.

One example is River Blindness, a disease which infects around 18 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and has blinded more than 250,000 people.

Another is Elephantiasis, which has affected more than 120 million people, mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia. It has disfigured and crippled about 40 million people.

The great tragedy is that the average cost of treating and eliminating these diseases is just $0.50 per person per year.

We ask: Why have these diseases been neglected for so long? And how effective will the new plans be to counter these diseases and, in turn, alleviate poverty?

Is the target date of 2020 set by the initiative realistic to wipe out some of the world’s deadliest conditions? And what is in it for them?

Inside Story, with presenter James Bays, discusses with guests:  Tido Von Schoen-Angerer, the director of the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Access Campaign; Lorenzo Savioli, the director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the World Health Organisation (WHO); and Mario Ottiglio, the associate director of Global Health Policy and Public Affairs at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.

“Our main mission is improving global health, providing [a] healthier environment and fostering the development of communities. Currently our member companies are working on more than 80 projects for the development of new treatments. The 14bn treatments announced recently will be donated until 2020 and will address nine of the NTD that constitute 90 per cent of the overall burden.”

Mario Ottiglio from the International Federation of Pharmaceuticals