WHO Adopts New Strategy to Combat Emerging Infectious Diseases

GENEVA -- The World Health Organization (WHO)-based Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) has adopted a new strategy for strengthening and expanding research to prevent and control emerging infectious diseases frequently associated with poverty.

The strategy builds on the programs 30-year record of developing new drugs, delivery strategies and enhancing research capacity in countries where parasitic tropical diseases are endemic. The new plan addresses some of the emerging disease challenges facing developing countries, such as TB-HIV co-infection.

Over the coming decade, TDR will focus on addressing key bottlenecks in getting healthcare treatments to poor and remote populations, and fostering research and policy leadership in countries where these diseases create significant health problems.

"If we want better health to work as a poverty reduction strategy, we must reach the poor. This is the acid test, and this is where we are failing," said WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan, speaking at the opening session of the TDR Joint Coordinating Board. "I am very glad to see TDR move into this new territory."

The Board approved the new 10-year strategy and vision. The Board includes the four TDR cosponsors -- UNDP, UNICEF, the World Bank and WHO -- as well as 30 representatives of governments of developed and developing countries. The vision calls on TDR, one of the major UN-based programs dedicated to health research in the developing world, to "foster an effective global research effort on infectious disease of poverty in which disease endemic countries play a pivotal role."

Over the past three decades, TDR has sponsored research that paved the way for the control of leprosy, onchocerciasis (river blindness), Chagas disease, lymphatic filariasis and visceral leishmaniasis. These five neglected tropical diseases, which previously killed or disabled millions of people every year, are now targeted for global or regional elimination, "largely as a result of tools and strategies developed through TDR-coordinated activities," noted Chan.

TDR also initiated and sponsored the first large-scale field trials of insecticide-impregnated bed nets in the mid 1990s, demonstrating their life-saving value in malaria control.

Under the new strategy, TDR's field research experience and networks will be harnessed to address one of the biggest challenges faced by the global health community: access to primary health treatments for poor people. Implementation research -- that is, research to investigate how best to use health tools and drugs more effectively in communities and health systems -- has traditionally been a key element in TDR's work.

In the mid-1990s, for instance, TDR created a model for community-directed treatment with ivermectin for onchocerciasis that causes river blindness. This delivery system has become the backbone for control strategies in remote, rural African communities where there are no doctors or healthcare centers. Community directed treatment systems now cover 60 million Africans, and by 2010 will cover some 100 million people, nearly one-sixth of the sub-Saharan population. The onchocerciasis control effort has been described as "one of the most triumphant public health campaigns ever waged in the developing world" (UNESCO, 2005).

Now, TDR is supporting African scientists to explore how community-directed systems could be used to deliver other essential primary healthcare interventions that are still underutilized -- such as insecticide-treated bed nets, home-based malaria treatment, TB diagnosis and treatment, and Vitamin A supplements.

Source: World Health Organization

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