Officials talk diseases at health summit

Mark Stevenson, Associated Press
November 17, 2004

MEXICO CITY -- International experts kicked off the first worldwide health research summit Tuesday in a desperate bid to focus attention on the so-called forgotten diseases - illnesses of the poor that account for half the world's deaths.

While there has been innovation in treating lifestyle diseases of the rich, like obesity and cardiovascular problems, the five-day World Health Organization's Summit on Health Research was tackling the lack of funding and drug development for tropical and infectious diseases, most curable even though they kill about 15 million people per year.

At the center of the agenda for researchers from 76 countries are things like "the 10-90 gap": the fact that only 10 percent of the world's health research budget goes to combat the most severe problems for 90 percent of the population.

"The system has been very successful at developing drugs, diagnostics and vaccines, but much less successful at getting them to people who need them," said Tim Evans, the WHO's assistant director-general, said at the opening ceremony of the summit. Evans estimated that two-thirds of current child deaths could be prevented with existing technology.

He called for "a research agenda that is not dependent on the private sector," noting that drug companies don't have much incentive to distribute mosquito nets that could protect African children from malaria.

Dr. Bernard Pecoul of Medecins San Frontiers said rich nations and drug companies should not only help make existing medications more accessible, but also develop new medications for the diseases of the poor.

"I'm not criticizing the private sector. They're just not in a very good position to set priorities," Pecoul said, noting there is more money dedicated to developing new anti-cholesterol pills than selling anti-malarial drugs.

"The corporations should open up their laboratories and libraries. It won't earn them any money, but it will improve their image," said Pecoul. His group, also known as Doctors without Borders, says there is a precedent for such massive, government-directed research efforts, noting that half the cost of developing anti-HIV drugs came from public coffers, not private companies.

But, as the Medecins statement noted, "if HIV/AIDS had hit poor countries only, patients would probably still be waiting for the first anti-retroviral to be developed."

There is a trend of the world seemingly losing interest in deadly diseases still common in the third world, but eradicated in developed countries. Health workers treating tuberculosis said they still rely on a diagnostic test developed in 1882.

A nurse treating the deadly tsetse fly-borne disease known as sleeping sickness said doctors in Africa still rely on an arsenic-based drug in use since 1949 that burns patient's veins and kills one in twenty of them.

That, despite the fact that world health research funding has risen to $106 billion annually.

"There is still a massive gap in funding for health problems that affect low- and middle-income countries," Evans said. For example, of about 1 million health research papers listed on scientific data bases, 42 percent are U.S. or Canadian, 47 percent from Europe or other developed nations, and only 11 percent of such studies are done in the less-developed world.

Crises like the SARS virus or avian flu provide an example of quick coordination between developed and developing nations, and massive research and investment in a short time.

But while SARS did serve as a model for sharing health information with developing nations in Southeast Asia, it also received attention mainly because it quickly spread to developed nations like Canada - something tuberculosis or malaria won't do.

Return to: CPTech Home -> Main IP Page -> IP and Healthcare -> CPTech Page on WHO -> WHO Summit on Health Research