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Protect children against Neglected Tropical Diseases or sub-Saharan Africa cannot develop

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be unable to develop unless children are protected against the Neglected Tropical Diseases that are holding them back, says an Imperial College London expert whose programme was today awarded a major prize by the Queen.

People in the West are very aware of the toll taken by diseases like HIV, TB and malaria and as a result, more funding is devoted to tackling these than to fighting Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) like schistosomiasis and elephantiasis. However, NTDs prevent far more children from progressing fully with their lives, argues Professor Alan Fenwick, head of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) at Imperial College London.

It was announced today that the SCI has won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its programme, which has in just five years administered over 43 million treatments for schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths in countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso. The programme estimates that it has cured over 20 million people of these diseases during this time, although regular annual treatments are necessary to keep them free of re-infections.

Professor Fenwick says that enabling children to be productive and achieve their potential is the key to development. Tackling NTDs is crucial because they are otherwise malnourished, debilitated and caught in the poverty trap caused by poor health. NTDs prevent people from benefiting from available education and, later in life, being able to work.

Over one billion people are infected with the most common NTDs which include trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness; soil-transmitted helminths like hookworm, which cause stunted growth and absenteeism from school; elephantiasis, an infestation of the lymphatic system which causes terrible deformities; schistosomiasis, which causes liver and kidney damage, and impaired growth and development; and river blindness, which causes skin rash, eye lesions and blindness.

The SCI’s programme has already proved how effective treatment can be but approximately 200 million people across Africa still need to be treated.

However the team behind the SCI's success say that all NTDs could be treated simply and easily with a ‘rapid impact package’ costing just 25 pence per person per year, thanks to drugs that are readily donated by pharmaceutical companies.

“Basic health and education should form the keystones of development, and the health of children across sub-Saharan Africa is really compromised by these diseases. We have children who can’t get the education they deserve because they’re too ill to attend school, and adults who are unable to work. People in the West don’t appreciate how lucky we are not to have a parasitic burden,” said Professor Fenwick.

Professor Joanne Webster, Director of Monitoring and Evaluation for the SCI from Imperial College, added: “We are delighted that the Queen has recognised with this prize the good work that the SCI has been doing over the last five years to improve the prospects for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Programmes like ours have already proved that we can easily bring these diseases under control and vastly improve the quality of people’s lives and their productivity. We could make a vast difference to future of sub-Saharan Africa if we had the means to treat everyone, but to do this we need more funding."

Professor Fenwick estimates that with an investment of approximately USD 1 billion over seven years, everyone in sub-Saharan Africa could be reached with the drug package, which would then bring all NTDs in the region under control. Once this coverage had been achieved, a new sustainable programme could be implemented which would only treat children as they entered school and again three years later. These children would then be protected from the serious consequences of NTDs for the rest of their lives.

Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College, said of the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize, “I congratulate Alan and his colleagues on achieving this recognition for the fantastic work they are doing to improve the lives of millions of people. Unfortunately we know that what the SCI and its partner organisations are able to do at the moment is not enough – without more money, millions will continue to suffer because of Neglected Tropical Diseases. We need more philanthropists and governments to come forward to tackle NTDs across Africa. They have the opportunity to make a huge impact on the health of the world’s people.”

The SCI was established in 2002 with a grant of USD 30 million (GBP 20 million) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It collaborates with Ministries of Health to control schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths through an annual mass drug administration programme using the drugs praziquantel and albendazole. In December 2006, the Gates foundation gave a further grant totalling USD 47.6 million to five organisations, including the SCI, to support efforts to coordinate and integrate programmes fighting NTDs in developing countries.

The SCI was and is unique in British universities. Imperial College’s Faculty of Medicine has made tackling disease in the developing world one of its main strategic themes and over 60 Principal Investigators attract £17 million in research funding annually for its Public and International Health activities.

Other examples of the College’s International Health activities include:

*An Imperial team at the Wellcome Trust/KEMRI research unit in Kenya has helped to devise a simple intervention to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of African children who die each year from severe malaria

*In conjunction with the MRC Clinical Trials Unit, an Imperial group is coordinating trials of microbicide gels to prevent HIV infection in Africa and the UK

*The Wellcome Trust Centre for Clinical Tropical Medicine at Imperial has developed a potentially life-saving new test for rapid, inexpensive detection of TB in developing countries.

Laura Gallagher | alfa
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