SOYMB drew attention to this problem in September and now it appears that the great powers-to-be are promising action. 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 "Neglected Tropical Diseases" (NTD). A new $14bn plan has now been drawn up to combat 10 of 17 NTD over the next decade.
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. 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. River Blindness, a disease which infects around 18 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and has blinded more than 250,000 people. 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 average cost of treating and eliminating these diseases is just $0.50 per person per year. Regarding R&D, a 2011 survey reported a grand total of $20.2 million investment for research and development by the pharmaceutical industry for the neglected diseases under discussion at the conference. This may sound like a lot, but Big Pharma generally claims to spend $1.3 billion developing a single drug.
"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 Medicins Sans Frontieres Access Campaign
"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." - Lorenzo Savioli, the director of the Department of Control of NTD at the WHO
But many point out it is not just a scarcity of medicines.
Dr Unni Karunakara International President of Medecins Sans Frontieres writes "Continued and expanded drug donations from the pharmaceutical industry will be part of the solution to address some diseases under discussion and alleviate a great deal of human suffering. But that strategy will not meet the challenges of treating other, more challenging diseases like Chagas, kala azar or sleeping sickness. For these life-threatening diseases, drug distribution alone isn't enough - we will need to invest strongly in national screening and treatment programmes, as well as the development of new and better diagnostic tests and medicines."
In the order of magnitude, it is, of course, easier to give drugs to the poor than to help them stop being poor. It is why the campaign is so focused rather than attacking the root cause of many of these diseases – their poverty.
The Financial Times quotes Ruhal Haque, Bangladesh’s minister of health and welfare, warned:
“Without improved sanitation, water quality and vector control, we cannot succeed.”
and World bank official, Caroline Anstey:
“These are not neglected diseases but diseases of neglected people.”