- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tropical diseases such as trachoma and river blindness have death rates similar to AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, but they have been neglected in preventative funding, researchers say.

Compared with more commonly known diseases, the “neglected tropical diseases” can be effectively treated and virtually eliminated for a fraction of the price with adequate funding, they say.

The tropical diseases cause malnutrition, anemia, disability, illness and death in approximately 1 billion people worldwide - about one-sixth of the world’s population.

“Neglected tropical diseases have afflicted humanity since time immemorial and, in their long histories, have acquired notoriety as disabling and deforming diseases,” said Dr. Francesco Rio, who leads the World Health Organization’s campaign to control such diseases.

To minimize the impact of the diseases, the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases has launched the “End the Neglect 2020” campaign with a $34 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The group hopes the high-profile contribution will encourage other investments to fight the tropical diseases.

The Global Network announced the investment at the ongoing annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The grant will target seven tropical diseases, which primarily infect people who live on less than $1.25 per day, often in poor, rural communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“The effects are devastating. This is why the poor countries are poor and why the bottom billion are in the bottom billion,” said Peter Hotez, president of the Washington-based Sabin Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit group that works to reduce suffering from neglected tropical diseases.

The Global Network’s campaign has been one of several international initiatives to combat the fatal ailments.

The U.S. Agency for International Development began one of the first large-scale global efforts to expand care for people infected with tropical diseases in September 2006 by awarding RTI International, a North Carolina-based nonprofit research and development organization, with a five-year, $100 million project.

During its first two years, the Neglected Tropical Diseases Control Project administered 90 million cases of preventative treatment to people at risk of contracting the diseases. This year, RTI International hopes to double the number of people treated, said Dr. Margaret Baker of the institute’s neglected tropical diseases program.

Despite these increased efforts, the neglected tropical diseases remain widespread.

“With little political voice, neglected tropical diseases have a low profile and status in public health priorities,” said the WHO’s Dr. Rio. “Lack of reliable statistics and unpronounceable names of diseases have all hampered efforts to bring them out of the shadows.”

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