Good news on tropical diseases Window of opportunity: Researchers say four disabling maladies can be eliminated.

March 21, 1997

IN MEDICAL news often dominated by AIDS, cancer or other common killers in affluent countries, it is easy to overlook the damage done by diseases most of the world has forgotten about. But maladies like leprosy or river blindness still blight countless lives, and an opportunity to eradicate any tropical disease represents a bright ray of hope for many countries of the world.

A research team at the World Health Organization sees a rare opportunity to attack and even eliminate four major diseases, affecting billions of people. These are diseases that may not cause a swift death, but that can greatly reduce a person's productivity and ability to participate in family and community life.

Some 1.6 billion people are still at risk of the disfigurement that leprosy causes on the faces and limbs of its victims. Often these deformities have social consequences that compound the medical problems. In India, researchers estimate that 90 percent of the young girls who contract leprosy subsequently drop out of school, thus drastically reducing their future standard of living.

Another 1.1 billion people are endangered by the disease known as elephantiasis, which causes gross swelling of the legs and genitals, as well as internal organ damage. Millions more are at risk of onchocerciasis, which causes blindness and serious skin infections. In Africa, girls who contract river blindness diseases often end up destitute, with little choice but to go into prostitution.

Chagas disease, which currently threatens some 100 million children and young people, has its own form of cruelty. It initially spares its victims, but leads to death from heart failure some 20 years later -- when the young person has reached his or her most productive years.

Tore Godal, director of a tropical disease research program at WHO, believes that with low-cost drugs, new weapons against the insects that carry these diseases and better methods for mapping the occurrence of a disease, the medical community has the tools it needs to make startling advances -- if governments, international organizations and private aid groups provide the resources and political will to put these methods in place.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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