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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Charity targets 'forgotten' diseases

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC, Geneva

Camp in Liberia
Many people cannot afford treatment in poor countries

The leading medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, is launching a new initiative to invest money in treatments for neglected diseases which affect more than 500 million people a year.

Only 10% of the world's health budget is invested in tropical illnesses, despite the fact that such diseases account for 90% of the global disease burden.

The charity is teaming up with experts from Brazil, France, India, Kenya, Malaysia and the World Health Organization.

It will spend 12 years developing new and effective drugs for the illnesses, which mostly affect people in poorer countries.

Support needed

According to MSF, more money is invested in treatments to increase sex drive and beauty than in drugs for tropical diseases.

Only 1% of the drugs developed in the past 25 years have been specifically made to tackle the illnesses which blight the lives of millions of people in developing countries.

I think it is possible for sure to develop drugs to combat these diseases but we need to find mechanisms... we have to challenge the public sector, we have to get public money
MSF International Director Morton Rostrop
Leishmaniasis, a parasitic and highly infectious disease spread by sand flies, is endemic in 88 countries.

But the most commonly used drug is now 70-years-old and toxic.

Morton Rostrop, the International Director of MSF, says few big pharmaceutical countries spend time researching medicines for illnesses which affect the poor because it does not make them any money.

"They're not interested because they cannot make any profit on these diseases because its the poor people getting this disease and they don't have any purchasing power," he says.

"I think it is possible for sure to develop drugs to combat these diseases, but we need to find mechanisms.

"We have to challenge the public sector, we have to get public money.

"We need support from governments, from institutions, from foundations, to get enough money and I think this should be absolutely feasible," he adds.

Finding the will

Working in conjunction with global research bodies and public health authorities, the charity will spend $250 million over the next 12 years to try to come up with seven new drugs.

It hopes these drugs will treat common illnesses such as sleeping sickness.

MSF says the science for the new life-saving drugs is pretty much already in place.

It is now just a question of finding the will.

The BBC's James Coomarasamy
"The charity [Medecins Sans Frontieres] is calling on companies to put need before greed"

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