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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 22:07 GMT
Cosmetic could cure sleeping sickness
Graves of sleeping sickness victims (WHO photo)
Sleeping sickness is potentially deadly
By the BBC's Fiona Werge

A cure for sleeping sickness, one of the most devastating diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, may soon be available cheaply thanks to its current role as a facial cosmetic.


The number of people who need drugs and alternative drugs is growing

Jean Jannin, World Health Organisation
An American cosmetics company, which uses the drug eflornithine as a remedy against facial hair, has agreed to produce a clinical version.

Eflorithine has long been understood to work effectively against sleeping sickness, a disease which invades the central nervous system and is always fatal if left untreated.

Tsetese fly trap (WHO photo)
Tsetse fly traps are used to combat sleeping sickness
Production of the drug ended two years ago after early hopes that it could be used to fight cancer came to nothing.

Another company, started making it as an ingredient in a face cream, used as a remedy against facial hair.

Breakthrough

Now the World Health Organisation is close to an agreement with the cosmetics firm to make an injectable form of the drug.

The deal would mean the company supplying it free of charge for the next three years and in enough quantity to provide treatment across Africa.

For Jean Jannin, from the World Health Organisation, cheap supply of the drug comes as a major breakthrough.

Tsetse fly (WHO photo)
Tsetese flies spread the disease
"We are facing a very high epidemic in the first half of the century. The number of people who need drugs and alternative drugs is growing", he says.

"And we are now struggling to improve our control capacities in the field and we hope that more and more people could benefit of this drug."

The shortage of the drug has meant an alternative arsenic compound has had to be used which kills many of the patients its supposed to treat.

Now aid agencies hope that in the long term, companies will continue to provide the drug cheaply enough to make it affordable and provide a final answer to the problem of one of the world's worst diseases.

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