World Health Leaders Call for New Research Goals

Lorraine Orlandi, Reuters
16 November, 2004

MEXICO CITY - Global health leaders meeting in Mexico this week want nations of the world to spend more on medical research, not only to develop new cures but to make those now on the market available to the poor.

Existing tools as simple as mosquito nets can cut deep into massive health problems such as malaria in developing nations, but research is needed to find ways to best use them, organizers of a summit for health research said at the start of the four-day event in Mexico City on Tuesday.

"The outlook is bleak (without such research) in terms of reaching health gains that we know are possible," Dr. Tim Evans, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, told a news conference.

Health ministers from 70 countries, joined by scientists, international leaders and private industry, will reiterate a call for governments to dedicate 2 percent of their health budgets to medical research, according to a draft of a declaration expected to be issued later in the week.

Funding for medical research is rising, and the number of public-private partnerships to develop new drugs has increased dramatically, providing promise for future treatments.

Yet, hundreds of thousands of women die every year in pregnancy, most of them in developing nations, from conditions that are often easily treatable or preventable.


While such long-standing problems persist, poor populations are also ravaged by newer diseases like AIDS and new pandemic infections emerge at a rate of about one a year.

In a report this month the World Health Organization said more effective research could prevent half the world's deaths with simple and cost-effective methods.

For example, mosquito nets could dramatically reduce children's deaths from malaria in some African nations, but a small minority of children now have then, Evans said. Local authorities need programs to deliver them universally.

One district in Tanzania reduced child mortality by 40 percent simply by making a local study of health problems and reallocating its health budget of about $2 per person accordingly, he said.

The independent humanitarian medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, said on Tuesday that despite brave talk, health leaders need to take more drastic steps to focus medical research on people suffering from "neglected diseases" in poor countries.

"The current system is failing people in developing countries in a number of ways," said Ellen Hoen, who runs the MSF campaign for access to essential medicines.

MSF experts singled out diseases including malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and sleeping sickness that are not being adequately treated in developing countries.

In the case of sleeping sickness, a disease that causes madness and then death and which is prevalent in Africa and carried by the tsetse fly, treatments being used are half a century old.

"The national protocol for second-stage sleeping sickness in Angola is melarsoprol, a horrible 55-year-old drug which burns the veins and kills one in 20 patients," said Virginia Morrison, an MSF nurse working in Angola.

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