Drug companies neglect tropical disease drugs for poor - experts

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 September 2011 18:51 GMT
Kala azar, which is transmitted by a bite of the female sand fly, kills over 50,000 people a year, mostly children

NAIROBI (AlertNet) – African scientists who have developed a new treatment for kala azar, a lethal but forgotten tropical disease, warned that drug companies’ reluctance to fund medications for poor populations is threatening to stop life-saving help reaching people.

Kala azar, which is transmitted by a bite of the female sand fly, kills over 50,000 people a year, mostly children. It causes fever, abdominal swelling, weight loss, anemia and, eventually, heart failure and death if not treated.

“Kala azar is one of the most neglected tropical diseases because over the years there’s been neglect by pharmaceutical companies as well as funding agencies who are not very interested because these patients do not have purchasing power,” said Monique Wasunna, one of the researchers who developed the new therapy, on Friday.

In contrast, laboratories in developed countries have poured billions into research related to avian flu because it affects people with money to pay for vaccines, said Kala Azar Focal Point for Medecins Sans Frontieres Elena Vellila.

“We need to take it forward so that the patients benefit out of this research otherwise it’s meaningless,” said Wasunna, adding that African governments need donor support to roll out the new treatment.

Half a million people around the world are infected with kala azar each year, with India, Sudan and South Sudan worst affected.

INVISIBLE PATIENTS

This is the first time in 70 years that scientists have improved treatment for kala azar, also known as leishmaniasis.

“These patients are invisible. They live in very remote areas and they are poor. They are not attracting the interest of any political body or pharmaceutical companies,” said Vellila.

The new therapy was discovered last year by the Leishmaniasis East Africa Platform (LEAP), a group of east African scientists working to development new treatments for the region through clinical trials.

“It’s very good news,” said Vellila. “It’s now allowing us to have shorter treatment courses of 17 days.”

By combining two existing drugs, Sodium Stibogluconate and Paromomycin, the scientists have reduced the treatment period for kala azar from 30 to 17 days. Patients have to be admitted to hospital to receive daily injections.

LEAP is funded by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI), a non-profit research organisation that develops new treatments for patients suffering from illnesses such as kala azar, sleeping sickness and paediatric HIV.

THE DREAM PILL

While the new therapy offers some improvement by nearly halving treatment time, millions more dollars are needed to carry out research into better drugs.

LEAP is carrying out a clinical trial with another promising kala azar treatment, Miltefosine, which has been shown to be effective in India.

Patients take a tablet for 28 days, which means they can be treated at home, sparing themselves and the hospital the cost of admission.

“There are many advantages to this oral pill. It is the dream for kala azar patients,” said Wasunna, who heads DNDI’s Africa office.

As pills are cheaper and do not require hospitalisation, more patients are likely to complete their treatment.

However, much work remains to be done as Miltefosine cannot be given to a woman of child-bearing age because it can damage the unborn child.

“We need a lot of money to fund such research because when it succeeds a lot of people will benefit,” said Wasunna.

Clinical trials are extremely expensive, costing at least $2 million, according to DNDI.

DNDI has a budget of $360 million over 10 years to develop eight treatments. It aims to deliver a dozen new treatments for neglected diseases by 2018.

Over 100 researchers, experts and drug regulatory authorities were meeting in Nairobi under the auspices of LEAP to discuss better ways to control the disease.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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