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[GENEVA] Developing scientific innovation products from research and development takes time but there is a need for simple innovations to tackle infectious diseases, experts have said.

The experts who attended the WHO’s 2nd global partners’ meeting on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Geneva last week (18-20 April) said that easy-to-use innovations are needed to combat NTDs.

NTDs include Buruli ulcer, Chagas disease, dengue and chikungunya, guinea worm disease, echinococcosis, human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) and leishmaniasis, with Africa being among regions bearing heavy burden.

“We need to attract public-private partnerships, universities and national programmes to develop a novel treatment for leishmaniasis.”

Bernard Pécoul, Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi)

To help fight NTDs — diseases of the poor — there is a need to combine simple community experiences and innovations from sciences, says David Molyneux, a senior professorial fellow at the UK’s Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

“These are simple innovative materials which derive not from basic science but experiences from communities and those involved in health education,” he says.

For instance, the use of bed nets that have become very effective innovation in malaria control was first suggested around 1901. “It takes a long time to get effective products into public health. Innovating in the context of infectious diseases has to be looked at beyond product development,” he explains.

According to Molyneux, mobile phones have become important for mapping and surveillance of diseases such as guinea-worm and trachoma through the use of Short Messaging Service — a way of sending a message from one mobile phone to another — in affected areas.

Molyneux says that empowering communities including affected villages to acquire drugs is an important method for combating diseases.

“Fifty-per cent of treatment for river blindness in Africa, 50 million treatments in a year, were to people living more than 20 kilometres from any health facility,” he says. “Good science is the basis of good public health. The challenge in NTDs is how to get the best science into public health policy.”

Molyneux explains that several challenges that make eliminating NTDs difficult are efficacy of drugs, sociogeographic issues, communities’ adherence to drug treatments, water and sanitation, and incentives for communities involved in the fight against NTDs.

According to Bernard Pécoul, executive director for the Geneva-headquartered Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), adapting easy-to-use innovations to the condition of people living in remote places can change the dynamics of the diseases control. For instance, he says that innovations are needed for developing drugs to eliminate leishmaniasis, a complex, severe disease affecting East Africa, India and Latin America. “We need to attract public-private partnerships, universities and national programmes to develop a novel treatment for leishmaniasis,” he says, adding that this is challenge.

Joseph Ndung’u, head of the human African trypanosomiasis and other neglected diseases diagnostics programme at the Switzerland-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, says innovations are only important if they go beyond product development.

These technologies, he says, need to be delivered to those communities living in impoverished areas to help shorten the distance being travelled by patients in those areas.

“We are now [at] very advanced stages of developing a test for simultaneous diagnosis of malaria and screening for sleeping sickness,” he says, adding that such innovations could provide sustainable elimination of NTDs.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.