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[NEW DELHI] The eradication of neglected tropical diseases should be given a higher priority and more funding, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

The call was made at a meeting on tropical diseases held in Jakarta last week (14–15 February).

Many people in Southeast Asia suffer from tropical diseases such as leprosy, lymphatic filaria, leishmaniasis and yaws. Dengue is emerging as another important problem in the region.

"These diseases cause great suffering and ill-health and have considerable economic impact on populations that are already the most marginalised in society," said Jai Narain, director of communicable diseases at the WHO's Southeast Asia office.

"They not only push populations into poverty but trap those already poor into further poverty from which they cannot escape."

Despite cost-effective interventions to tackle these diseases, they are considered 'neglected' because they receive inadequate policy support and funding, are not given priority in research and development, and health programmes are often poorly implemented.

International funds tend to be directed towards childhood immunisation and treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis — the three diseases that kill the most people globally.

"Other communicable diseases, including leprosy, filariasis, leishmaniasis and yaws are not the headline news, nor are they 'global' in nature," Narain told SciDev.Net. 

He said the WHO is advocating for increased attention and resources to combat these diseases "as a moral and ethical imperative".

At an annual meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences in November, Martanda Sankara Valiathan, former director of Sree Chitra Tirunal Medical College in Thrivananthapuram, India, pointed out that India's top ten fields of medical research did not include tropical medicine or respiratory illnesses, despite their high disease burden (see India 'weak' at technical research and education ).

In Africa, tropical diseases affect over 500 million people. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a US$46.7 million grant in December to coordinate and integrate efforts to combat the diseases (see Grant boosts joint fight against neglected diseases ).

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