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Researchers at Imperial College in London, the World Health Organisation, and the Harvard School of Public Health have been given US$30 million to set up a partnership to help African countries tackle the widespread disease schistosomiasis.

The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) — funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — aims to demonstrate effective control of schistosomiasis in selected African countries, and use this as a model for other affected areas.

“By creating a successful prevention and treatment program that can be emulated in countries around the world, SCI has the opportunity to make a major impact in the fight against schistosomiasis,” says Sally Stansfield of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Schistosomiasis — also known as bilharzia — is a parasitic disease that causes chronic liver problems and currently affects more than 200 million people in developing countries. Second only to malaria in terms of socio-economic and public health impact in tropical areas, it threatens a further 600 million people because of inadequate water supply and sanitation.

The primary goals of the SCI are to identify the most heavily infected regions in at least four African countries, provide health education in those regions, treat individuals with schistosomiasis, and monitor the impact of the treatment programme. It will also create local and international partnerships, and work with African countries to develop national control plans and research programmes.

"The misery and ill health caused by schistosomiasis is so unnecessary,“ says Alan Fenwick, director of the SCI says. “There is a drug, praziquantel, that is safe, effective, and reasonably priced. The challenge now is to deliver this treatment to places like sub-Saharan Africa where the drug has never been available."

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Photo credit: WHO/TDR/Crump