By Ed Harris, WIPO. Publication date: January 3, 2014
DAKAR, Senegal -- As a young cow herder in the Senegalese countryside, Alouis Sarr was 15 years old when he noticed the first signs of an ailment that would plague him for the rest of his life: Weeping, open sores appearing on his fingers.
Decades later, Mr. Sarr collects alms in the streets of the capital, Dakar, where charitable passersby lay bills next to him to avoid his hands, gnarled after decades of leprosy. As the city bustles around him, Mr. Sarr dreams of a more-bucolic life among children, even though taboos against leprosy sufferers run strong in rural West Africa.
“In my village, the only work is agricultural, but I can’t do that now,” states Mr. Sarr, who says he is about 70 years old. “But I would love to go back and take care of the family’s children.”
Mr. Sarr is not alone in having his dreams, body and life altered by preventable or treatable sickness. Some 1 billion people around the world suffer from 17 World Health Organization-classed neglected tropical diseases, which include leprosy, Chagas, river blindness, rabies, guinea work and sleeping sickness.
“Diseases of Poverty”
These neglected tropical diseases are mostly found in lower-income countries and their sufferers are frequently the most-vulnerable members of the population – people living in remote, rural areas or urban slums. Indeed, the WHO characterizes them as “ diseases of poverty.”
But these diseases, along with malaria and tuberculosis, don’t just afflict individuals. They hinder healthy development of entire communities, where human efforts and scant resources are diverted toward caring for the sick and away from ventures like schooling or professional training that lead to economic growth.
New Product Development
That’s why the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), together with Seattle, USA-based BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), have launched a program – WIPO Re:Search – that stimulates the development of new products to fight neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis.
Now two years old, WIPO Re:Search includes dozens of active partners on all five continents, including some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies as well as research institutes in endemic countries, all working with the same goal: to take the “neglected” out of tropical medicine.
The unique program brings together public and private resources, along with researchers from around the world, to work toward new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for these diseases. Significantly, any new products that eventually come to market through the program must be sold royalty-free in least-developed countries.
Already, WIPO Re:Search has brokered some 40 agreements. Through WIPO Re:Search, African research centers are providing samples from the ground to some of the world’s best-known medical facilities. Pharmaceutical companies are sharing compounds and know-how they already have, and which might also be useful in treating neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis.
Already, four African scientists have begun months-long training programs overseas, through a grant provided by the Australian government.
In the coming years, WIPO Re:Search hopes to continue signing up new partners to expand its possibilities, while increasing its focus on bringing together existing members in new and fruitful collaborations.
But the challenges are enormous. Malaria alone killed 660,000 people in 2010, primarily African children, according to the WHO. Transmitted by mosquito bites, the malaria parasite causes sufferers headache, fever, chills and vomiting. While there are several preventive medicines and effective treatments available, the malaria parasite evolves and therefore new and different interventions are constantly necessary.
In the worst cases, malaria causes death, particularly in kids. But for those who muddle through – there were 219 million malaria cases in 2010, according to WHO – recurrent bouts of illness make it difficult for many sufferers to work and the disease is costly to treat for people with limited means.
In recent years, Senegal launched a massive prevention campaign, making insecticide-treated bed nets more easily available, leading to drastically diminishing morbidity rates from malaria.
For El-Hadj Fall, who sells mosquito nets in a Dakar market, preventing bug bites is the key to stopping malaria. A repeat malaria sufferer himself, the 40-year old father of five girls says that everyone should sleep under a bed net.
But he says that many people find the nets hinder the movement of fresh air. And in an impoverished country where bed sharing among many people is a night-time reality, the mosquitos often enter and exit with people coming and going from bed at different times.
“There are two levels to controlling malaria: There’s prevention, like with these bed nets,” says Mr. Fall, gesturing at pastel-colored nets rustling in a mid-day breeze, retailing between 4 and 5 euros apiece. “But on another level, there’s the medicine,” he says. “We do need a vaccine.”