Getting Neglected Diseases on the Map

Published on 23rd May 2006

The World Health Organization categorizes close to 10 different types of diseases as neglected or as diseases of the poor. It is generally believed that the diseases of the poor manifest themselves basically because there is no ‘big market’ to warrant research and delivery of medicine in the direction of poor patients.


Neglected diseases include those that could be cured or prevented by modern science and technology but leading pharmaceutical industries have either slowed down in research    and investment. Such diseases include Malaria which attacks half a billion people, leads to unmeasured loss of working hours and kills at least one million people annually. Malaria is estimated to cost Africa alone USD 12 billion in lost GDP each year. The main culprit behind the malaria menace is a tiny insect-the mosquito which also transmits the Dengue fever that threatens an estimated 2,500 people in 100 countries in Africa, the Americas, South East Asia and Western pacific. So far there is no known specific treatment.  


Other diseases categorized as diseases of the poor include, River Blindness, Bilharzia, Tuberculosis, Elephantiasis (spread by mosquitoes), and Leprosy among others. Just how have African governments tackled the disease burden over the years? The most common method has been to approach donors, get medicine, train doctors and get the problem fixed. This has exposed inefficiencies of governments, ranging from rotting drugs in stores due to lack of transport, migration of trained personnel in search of better pay in wealthy nations and constant loss of precious life.


Many countries focus more on curative approach to health care as opposed to preventive. It is estimated that 72 per cent of the Kenya government expenditure on health is on curative. The ‘curative’ mentality can never encourage research into diseases afflicting the human person. Better still, with what will you cure people with? This, compounded by the fact that research in medicine costs billions of dollars has made many countries in Africa to literally surrender their healthcare to experts from rich nations and brought along with it allegations of unlicensed trials of new medicine on people, sometimes with tragic results, and trade disputes that are linked to business in medicines.


While recognizing the fact that research is expensive, it is strategic for African governments to facilitate an environment that will enable private citizens to join in the initiative of battling diseases. The mosquito is a leading danger to people in Africa. It ought to be destroyed by draining ponds, spraying households with chemicals along administration of medicine. Pharmaceutical industries need not fear that they will lose business if mosquitoes perish; they still make billions of dollars in profits in the Wealthy nations that do not have Malaria anyway.


African nations should prioritize tackling the disease burden that is obviously manageable such as Malaria and sleeping sickness and be in a position to save enough money to tackle others diseases through awareness. Kenyans have at least made strong advances in assisting many people from associating diseases with evil spirits. Through awareness programs, people in Ukambani and Western parts of Kenya who still believe that malaria is either caused by eating a lot of green maize and mangoes or by being rained on can finally target the mosquito. The idea of diseases being associated with a neighbor having looked at another with a ‘bad eye’ ought to be cleared from the minds of many.


Politicians ought to give sick people a break! The political industry in Africa has been very enterprising in marketing political promises that rarely get implemented. You will find images of political leaders in business premises and public offices. If Africans diverted from investing in politics to products that feed and save human lives, there will be no such talk as ‘neglected diseases’. Africans must seek efficient ways to improve their livelihood through exploring new technologies and treating the disease burden as an urgent affair that kills individuals rather than operating in blanket statistics. The African person must take the first active step of putting neglected diseases on the map by investing in preventive measures.


Researching and getting medicines to populations that do not have fairly accurate information on causes of diseases can be counterproductive. This also points at the importance of empowering African populations economically to enable them purchase medicines and fund vector eradication programs on their own. Perhaps the rest of Africa can learn from a simple industry that has picked up strongly in Western Kenya where many people who used to be cash strapped have joined a bicycle taxi business (Boda Boda) that enables them to earn a little more money to purchase medicines. The point is, by governments proactively loosening a tight hold on regulations that run against business, they will get people solving their own disease burden.


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