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  • Grant boosts joint fight against neglected diseases

A US$46.7 million grant will boost efforts to combat five key neglected tropical diseases in developing countries through a large-scale and coordinated, rather than disease-specific, approach.

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) infect more than 500 million people in Africa, and over two billion globally are infected with at least one of the parasites or bacteria that cause them.

The grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced yesterday (19 December) will support efforts to coordinate and integrate programmes run by five global health organisations to combat the diseases.

Combining efforts — for instance in drug delivery, and by carrying out large-scale treatment programmes — is far more efficient than the current disease-specific strategies most commonly used to fight NTDs.

"Today, most control and treatment programs for NTDs focus on a single disease, but people in tropical regions usually face more than one serious disease threat," said Regina Rabinovich, director of the Infectious Diseases initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

"An integrated approach that addresses multiple diseases at once could reach those in need more efficiently and help save more lives."

The health organisations that will receive the funds say buying and delivering drugs to control five of the most devastating NTDs could cost as little as US$0.50 per person each year if drug delivery programs are brought together.

The five diseases targeted in the projects are trachoma — an eye infection causing blindness; intestinal worms; onchocerciasis – also called river blindness; schistosomiasis; and lymphatic filariasis — also known as elephantiasis.

Although usually non-fatal and easily curable, NTDs are widespread in poor settings and often cause chronic disability. They also increase people's vulnerability to other, fatal diseases.

"In countries where [mass] treatment has already been implemented, such as China and Egypt, the effects have been dramatic," says Joanne Webster, who works with the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative at Imperial College, University of London, United Kingdom, one of the grant's beneficiaries.

"There is every reason to anticipate that these effects can be extended throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and to other countries in Asia and South America," she told SciDev.Net.

Integrating the projects will enhance their coverage, make them more sustainable, and reduce the burden caused by NTDs in Africa, say the organisations.

"The World Health Organization has provided very clear guidelines on how far the different drugs can be administered simultaneously," says Webster. "Where this is possible, it clearly helps both patients and administrators."

The organisations will carry out research on where to implement treatment, she says, "with mapping and rapid assessment tools to evaluate where multiple diseases actually occur, so as not to waste valuable resources".

The research will also assess how combined therapy affects the rate, prevalence and intensity of the diseases, added Webster.

The five beneficiaries of the grant are the US-based International Trachoma Initiative, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, The Carter Center, the Task Force for Child Survival and Development and the World Health Organization.

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