Doctors Without Borders Delivers Petition Calling for More Research & Development for Neglected Diseases That Kill 14 Million Every Year

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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Washington, DC, May 14, 2003 - The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today called upon the U.S. government and the pharmaceutical industry to adopt appropriate policies and devote new resources to finding effective and affordable treatments for neglected diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, sleeping sickness, and kala azar. The organization delivered petitions signed by some 30,000 Americans from every U.S. state and territory as well as organizations representing tens of millions of Americans to the White House and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Supporters included over 30 deans of U.S. medical schools and schools of public health, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, MD, AIDS researcher David Ho, MD, the National Council of Churches, the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and Kids for World Health. The petition is being delivered as part of activities surrounding the culmination of MSF's year-long nationwide tour of the Access to Essential Medicines EXPO on the National Mall, May 14-18.

"A silent crisis of massive proportions is killing thousands of people in the developing world every day. Unprecedented medical advances have led to the creation of innovative treatments for everything from cancer to baldness, but profit-driven pharmaceutical companies and governments are abandoning the poor," stated Nicolas de Torrente, MSF executive director. "We are here in Washington, DC, to deliver a very clear message to policymakers: the current system of research and development is failing - patients are dying unnecessarily because the treatments that could save their lives are simply not being researched and developed. We must change course dramatically if we hope to turn the tide against infectious diseases that claim millions of lives every year. To do that, we need government action and global cooperation."


MSF nurse in Washington, D.C. Photo © MSF

The World Health Organization estimates that 14 million people die each year from communicable diseases. Yet of the 1,393 new drugs approved between 1975 and 1999, only 16 were specifically developed for tropical diseases and tuberculosis, diseases that account for 11.4% of the global disease burden. Old diseases such as dengue fever and human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) are reappearing and drug resistance to diseases like tuberculosis and malaria is spreading rapidly, rendering useless medicines that were once effective. Some of the medicines, such as that commonly used to treat visceral leishmaniasis (kala azar), were invented decades ago and are highly toxic. Existing medicines for some diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, not only remain expensive, but are also poorly adapted to resource-poor settings. For some of the most neglected diseases, there is no treatment to offer whatsoever: no effective medicine has been found and nobody is looking for new possibilities.

"Today alone, 19,000 people will die from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, sleeping sickness, and kala azar—one child in Africa dies of malaria every 30 seconds," stated Nicolas de Torrente. "The threat of SARS has triggered a massive international research and development effort to find a cure. Other infectious diseases that are far deadlier and more widespread need to be attacked with the same urgency."

MSF is an independent international medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters, and to others who lack health care due to social or geographical isolation in over 80 countries throughout the world. MSF was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, and that same year launched an international Access to Essential Medicines Campaign, which grew directly out of the frustration of MSF doctors and nurses who were increasingly unable to treat their patients because the medicines they needed were too expensive, no longer produced, increasingly ineffective, or simply did not exist.

As part of MSF's Campaign, the organization developed a traveling public education exhibit, the Access to Essential Medicines EXPO, which uses photographs, sound, text, and interaction with MSF field volunteers to educate visitors about the access to medicines crisis, and highlights the lack of R&D for neglected diseases. The U.S. tour was launched in March 2002 at MSF's international conference on "The Crisis of Neglected Diseases" in New York and has since visited 30 U.S. cities. The National Mall is the EXPO's final stop in the U.S., but will be present in Geneva at the annual World Health Assembly next week, and near Evian, France, at the G8 Summit the first week of June.