Germany intensifies fight against neglected diseases | Africa | DW | 29.12.2011
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Germany intensifies fight against neglected diseases

Over one billion people, mostly from developing countries, suffer from neglected diseases. The majority have little or no access to treatment. A project with a new approach brings fresh hope.

A Togolese woman with AIDS in a hospital bed.

HIV/ AIDS is one of the 'big three' neglected diseases.

Many people from poor countries are affected by neglected diseases, due to the obvious connection with poverty. More than one billion people, to be specific, and millions die every year. With every minute that passes, five people die as a result of malaria or tuberculosis alone.

Germany has stepped up its efforts to combat these sicknesses. It has shifted responsibility from the developmentment aid ministry to the ministry for education and research, which in turn came up with a new strategy. Helge Braun, a key research ministry official, said the change was highly significant. "As a research ministry we are endowed with more expertise," Braun noted, adding that his ministry could improve cooperation between Germany and emerging nations over research into neglected diseases.

Fighting the big three

A mother watches over her child who is suffering from malaria in a hospital in Kenya.

Malaria and tuberculosis resistance to drugs poses a major challenge

Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, known as the ‘big three', all fall under the umbrella of neglected diseases. Research into the killer disease trio has shown a link between them and poverty rates. But another serious problem has cropped up, namely resistance to drugs. Oliver Moldenhauer, who works with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said the resistance of tuberculosis to drugs was a major concern.

"If we don't get new drugs, we will not be able to conquer this," he told Deutsche Welle. According to Moldenhauer, the pharmaceutical industry is reluctant to invest in this field because it is not particularly lucrative.

The standard medication used for treating tuberculosis is almost 40-years old and, with the emergence of more resistant strains, treatment can take up to two years, with a success rate of just 60 percent.

The German government, through its product development partnerships (PDPs) is looking to change that. PDPs link partners from different sectors in longterm partnerships toward a common goal. Each partnership is focused on a specific technological goal, like the development of a malaria vaccine. Braun said that the reason they took this approach was because results were achievable in the affected countries themselves. "Some partners do the financing, while others take care of the clinical tests," he explained.

Greater access to treatment

What Germany is hoping for is that PDPs will make medical treatement possible for people who normally would have no chance of obtaining it.

Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Central Africa and Sudan have little or no access to effective health care. Sleeping sickness is widespread in these countries, a disease which can be fatal if not diagnosed early enough. However, the main drug for treating it has severe side effects.

Patients wait in line in Sudan.

New research partnerships aim to make treatment more accessible.

A new drug has now been developed through the product development partnership, under what is known as the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi). Dr. Bernard Pecoul heads the DNDi. "We combined two drugs used to treat tuberculosis and we have seen good results so far, the drug is complicated to use, but non-toxic," he said.

The drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies are not yet to be found on chemists' counters, since they still have to be clinically tested and approved. However their efficacy has already been demonstrated in tests carried out in treatment centers in Africa.

The World Health Organization has standardized the medicine so that they could be routinely available free of charge to those who need them. That is a huge success for the DNDi project as they seek complete eradication of sleeping sickness through improving drugs used for treatment.

Author: Lina Hoffman /cm
Editor: Susan Houlton / rm

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