Magazine article New Internationalist

Facial-Hair Cream to the Rescue: Tropical-Disease Drugs in Critical Condition

Magazine article New Internationalist

Facial-Hair Cream to the Rescue: Tropical-Disease Drugs in Critical Condition

Article excerpt

[Graph Not Transcribed]

MALARIA is killing between one and two million people each year, 90 per cent of them in Africa and more than half of them young children. And visceral leishmaniasis will kill half a million in the developing world if they don't receive treatment. These are neglected, seriously disabling or life-threatening diseases that mainly affect people in the poor world, and for which treatment options are inadequate or do not exist. In their own right, they don't constitute a valuable enough 'market' to stimulate adequate research and development for new medicines by the pharmaceutical industry.

Take sleeping sickness. Civil war and the mass movement of civilians fleeing conflict has led to an epidemic of the disease through Uganda, DR Congo, Angola, Congo Brazzaville and Sudan. Sixty million Africans are at risk from catching this often-fatal disease. Although 45,000 cases of sleeping sickness were reported in 1999, the World Health Organization estimates that the number of people actually affected is 10 times greater. Yet it's a disease that most people living in industrialized countries haven't heard of. And because it poses no threat to rich-world consumers, there is little incentive to research effective drugs to treat it.

So until very recently the only drug available to patients infected with sleeping sickness was an archaic treatment first made 50 years ago that has a 1-in-20 chance of killing them. This drug - melarsoprol - is a derivative of arsenic. When injected it burns the patient. It can also cause a swelling in the brain leading to convulsions, coma and death. It has placed doctors in an invidious position - they knew the risks of injecting their patients with this caustic poison, yet they had no other option.

Then, in the late 1990s, a new drug emerged which could treat sleeping sickness with none of the painful side-effects. …

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