|A new $3 million facility to produce a de-worming agent that will radically change the lives of people on the African continent and further afield opened in Cape Town on Wednesday.
The GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) factory will manufacture the albendazole tablets for what could become the largest drug donation programme in global pharmaceutical industry history.
The company has been working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the past seven years on a programme to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (LF) – also known as elephantiasis – by halting the transmission of the disease. This is being done by means of a mass rollout of drugs that has been shown to be effective.
LF is an infection caused by microscopic, parasitic worms that invade the lymphatic system. Mosquitoes spread the disease, which can lead to the enlargement and disfigurement of the arms, legs and genital organs, as well as fevers.
Over a billion people at risk
The disease threatens over one billion people in 80 countries and 120 million people are already affected, 40 million of whom are seriously incapacitated and disfigured by the disease. LF is one of the leading causes of permanent and long-term disability worldwide.
Two drugs given once a year for five years in a row can halt the transmission of the disease. Albendazole is one of these drugs. Merck & Co donates the other drug, called Mectizan.
This year alone, 140 million treatments of albendazole will be donated to 40 countries. Experts believe that – with continuing efforts – LF could become the second disease in history to be eliminated. Smallpox is the only disease ever to have been completely eradicated.
A case in point
"This week, I have seen this programme in action in Ghana," says Dr Jean-Pierre Garnier, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. "After four years, Ghana has hit its target of treating all 10 million people at risk from the disease."
Garnier believes that innovative solutions, like public-private partnerships, should be encouraged as a route to providing investment in disease areas where there are fewer treatments available.
"We rightly focus so much attention on the 'big three' (Aids, TB and malaria), because they are such killers. But we mustn't fall into the trap of forgetting those diseases which do not kill people directly, but do cause enormous suffering and poverty," he says.
More jobs in SA
An added bonus to South Africa is that the opening of the factory in Cape Town will boost the local economy by creating much-needed job opportunities.
"I am delighted to be part of this historical moment," South Africa's Deputy Minister of Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge said at the opening function. "And I would like to thank GSK for building this plant in South Africa."
According to Dr Lorenzo Savioli, Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the WHO, a firm commitment from the governments of the countries that are affected is needed for the global eradication strategy to be effective. "But this donation (by GSK) makes the commitment just so much easier," Savioli says.
Countries affected by LF include Zimbabwe, Malawi, Angola, Ghana and Mozambique. – (Health24)
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