Global Britain has a vital role to play in helping cure neglected diseases
A silent medical revolution has been going on over the past decade. Innovative initiatives to bring the best science to the most vulnerable communities have resulted in breakthrough cures and preventative drugs for some of the world’s most neglected diseases.
Yet very few people in the United Kingdom are aware of the essential role their country has played in these successes.
As a doctor and a vet, who have been heavily involved in the study and control of parasitic diseases, we have seen first-hand the immense harm they cause – especially a group of illnesses known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Far from the headlines, NTDs kill, disfigure, and disable millions of people every year.
Take sleeping sickness, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly which, without treatment, is fatal. Three million people in Africa are at risk of infection. But, for decades, the only treatment available for the second stage of the disease consisted of an arsenic-derivative so toxic that it killed one in 20 patients.
Too many people suffer from dreadful diseases that could be cured and prevented with the right tools
More than one billion people are affected globally by other NTDs each year, diseases such as river blindness, elephantiasis, schistosomiasis, leprosy, and others with horribly difficult names and horribly difficult clinical diseases. Yet the only available treatments are often toxic or ineffective – if they even exist at all. Since NTDs impact the poorest communities, the pharmaceutical industry has little financial incentive to develop drugs.
But solutions do exist.
Sleeping sickness can now be cured with a safe and effective treatment called fexinidazole, recently developed by the non-profit medical research organization Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi). UK public investment has also driven the development of all ten new treatments delivered by DNDi since 2003 and strengthened enduring R&D collaborations between endemic countries, British universities, and the British pharmaceutical industry.
Supported by the UK, such innovative, non-profit, collaborative approaches, or Product Development Partnerships (PDPs), have resulted in more than 65 health tools – vaccines, medicines, and tests – to combat diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and NTDs, reaching more than 2.4 billion people, including the most vulnerable women and children, and preventing disruption in employment, family income, and education.
Other NTDs are being tackled by mass drug administration programs using existing drugs, including repurposed veterinary medicines, donated free by pharmaceutical companies, in probably the biggest philanthropic gesture by any industry. For Mass Drug Administration programs, UK Official Development Assistance has been crucial in supporting NGOs, and others working in collaboration with endemic countries’ Ministries of Health, to deliver to all the global communities in need of treatment.
Ahead of this month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda and Kigali Summit on Malaria and NTDs, during which concrete actions to tackle NTDs will be discussed, we think it is important to demonstrate the critical role the UK has played in innovating for NTDs.
This support from the UK must continue. Too many people suffer from dreadful diseases that could be cured and prevented with the right tools. The Covid-19 pandemic has set progress back, and new challenges are emerging. NTDs such as dengue are impacted by climate change and other changes to the natural environment and will continue to see their burden increase dramatically. It is vital we maintain and even expand our current research efforts.
We therefore look forward to the FCDO making ambitious commitments at the Kigali Summit and showcasing those commitments at the reception organised in the House of Lords on 8 June by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and NTDs and the UK Coalition against NTDs.
Helping humanity to get rid of the diseases that plague our most vulnerable communities is not only within our reach – it also seems a goal worthy of Global Britain’s ambitions.
Lord Trees is a crossbench peer and vice chair of the APPG on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases. Dr Bernard Pécoul is executive director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative.
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