News story

UK to protect 140 million people from tropical diseases

UK aid will help global effort to rid the world of infectious tropical diseases

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Britain will supply more than four treatments every second for people in the developing world for the next four years as part of a global push to help eliminate infectious tropical diseases, International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien announced today.

Video: Neglected no more: Tackling tropical diseases in Tanzania

Video: Neglected no more - Tackling tropical diseases in Tanzania

British support is leading the way and will protect more than 140 million of the world’s poorest men, women and children from the agonising pain caused by these avoidable infections which deform, disable, blind and kill.

The pledge marks a five-fold increase in Britain’s support as part of an international effort to help rid the world of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), currently affecting one billion people and killing more than half a million every year.

It comes ahead of a conference in London on January 30th when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, governments, NGOs, multilateral organisations and the private sector will unite to help consign the diseases to history.

Sufferers of NTDs are often immobile with adults unable to work to support their families and children forced to miss school for weeks, or even months, at a time.

The diseases can force communities into deeper poverty as the disabled and unemployed adults struggle to afford food and basic services, including healthcare, and generations of children grow up with little education and few prospects for the future.

Britain’s increased aid is largely focused on four diseases - lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and dracunculiasis (Guinea Worm).

It will help make Guinea Worm the second human disease ever to be eradicated in history by 2015, help secure the elimination of elephantiasis and river blindness and protect millions more from bilharzia.

International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien said:

“It is a tragedy that the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people are still being destroyed by these ancient and avoidable tropical diseases when we have the means to tackle them.

“These diseases thrive on poverty and have horrendous consequences for sufferers - especially children - leaving them in debilitating pain with severe disabilities. And for those who survive, they are left trapped in poverty as they are unable to work or attend school.

“It is the victims of these diseases who have been neglected for too long. The world is increasingly coming together to build on the long-standing commitment of the pharmaceutical industry to rid the world of these terrible diseases which disable, blind and kill millions every year.

“British support will take the neglected out of neglected tropical diseases and will not just save lives - but transform lives. By preventing the spread of these diseases and treating their victims, we will enable them to go to school and work so that they can help themselves out of poverty and eventually no longer rely on aid.”

The additional support will initially enable Britain to increase its impact by:

  • Providing 400 million treatments to protect 100 million people from elephantiasis to help towards its elimination. British support will prevent two million people from contracting the disease. Spread by mosquitoes, it is caused by parasitic worms and leads to the abnormal enlargement of the limbs and genitals, which is severely debilitating, disfiguring and stigmatising.
  • Delivering 100 million treatments for bilharzia to improve the quality of life and avert serious illness in 40 million people to help save 10 million lives. Caught through contact with contaminated fresh water that contains parasites, it leads to chronic ill health, damages internal organs, impairs the growth of children and causes more than 200,000 deaths a year in Africa.
  • Helping to prevent more than 3 million people from developing river blindness. This disease is transmitted through the bites of infected blackflies. Adult worms in humans develop, producing millions of larvae which live in the skin causing intense itching, disfiguring skin lesions and eye disease that can result in blindness. 
  • Helping to make Guinea Worm the second human disease ever to be eradicated in history by 2015. The water borne infection leaves people bed ridden for months, meaning adults are unable to work and children are forced to miss school. While the worm, which can grow up to three feet long, is not usually fatal, the wound where the worm emerges can develop bacterial infections such as tetanus which can be life-threatening.

Stephen O’Brien will attend the event in London, where Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, chief executives of pharmaceutical companies and representatives from other donors will also make and renew commitments to tackle NTDs.

Professor Alan Fenwick, Professor of Tropical Parasitology, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Imperial College London:

“With this new funding and donated drugs we can build on our successes so far and help African governments to reach out to many millions of the poorest children infected with schistosomiasis, improving the quality of their lives and saving them from an early death.”

Professor David Molyneux, Centre for Neglected Tropical Diseases, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine:

“Those of us who have been involved in control of NTDs over recent years applaud this most welcome and generous support from the UK government. It builds on the extraordinary commitment of the pharmaceutical industry to supply drugs over the long term to treat these diseases and recognises the leadership of WHO and the commitment of the Director General to the elimination of the most prevalent disease of the poor. 

“The interventions are amongst the most cost effective in global health and are driven by committed partnerships with Ministries of Health, Non Governmental Organisations, international organisations, the pharmaceutical industry and the research community. The UK government support will literally change the lives of many millions of the poorest.”

Caroline Harper, UK Coalition against Neglected Tropical Diseases spokesperson:

“This is a landmark commitment from the UK Government, shining a spotlight on a group of diseases which have for too long been devastating the lives of people in the developing word because of a lack of funding.

“We hope that today’s announcement spurs other donor countries and agencies to take action, and that we can make real progress towards the World Health Organization’s aim of eliminating these diseases entirely. 

“The UK Coalition against NTDs will work collaboratively with other NGOs, governments, multilaterals, academia and private sector leaders to help ensure that the commitments made today are turned into a reality for the one billion people affected.”

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Published 21 January 2012