LONDON -- Four years into a 20-year international campaign against the disfiguring disease known as elephantiasis, nearly 80 million people who are at risk have begun to be protected, raising hopes that the sickness can be eliminated, according to a report released Monday.
Studies have shown a simple two-drug, once-yearly treatment is 99 percent effective against lymphatic filariasis, or LF, the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis said in its report. The disease can cause the enlargement and disfigurement of the arms, legs and genitals known as elephantiasis.
Two of the drugs are being donated by their manufacturers: GlaxoSmithKline is providing albendazole, and Merck & Co. Inc. is giving Mectizan. Both companies are members of the alliance.
"We estimate that it will take about 20 years to break the cycle of the disease globally," GlaxoSmithKline chief executive J.P. Garnier said. "But we have the proof now that it is practical to eliminate this ghastly disease completely within our lifetimes."
The company says it expects to donate $1 billion in drugs and cash over the next 20 years.
The World Health Organization, which is leading the campaign against LF, estimates that some 1 billion people in 80 tropical countries are at risk, while 120 million people actually carry the infection. It is spread by a microscopic parasitic worm - transmitted by mosquitoes - that invades the human lymphatic system.
In some regions, the infection is found in up to 25 percent of children aged 4-6 years.
The WHO says LF is endemic in 32 of the 38 least developed countries and more than 80 percent of those infected live in these countries.
The full five-year treatment costs between 10 cents and $2 per person.
Eliminating the disease is expected to bring economic advantage. In India, home to a third of all those infected with LF, the economic losses resulting from decreased productivity and work days due are estimated to be around $1 billion annually.
Another third of the people infected with the disease live in Africa, while the final third live in southeast Asia, the Pacific and the Americas.
David Molyneux, a tropical disease expert from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in northwest England, said fighting LF isn't as difficult as battling diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and malaria because the worm grows slowly and doesn't become as resistant to treatment.
"It makes the goal of ending the disease realistic," he said.
The WHO said the disease is still spreading in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa, Asia and the Americas. One factor is the rapid, unplanned growth of cities, which creates numerous breeding sites for mosquitoes.
Apart from the WHO, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and U.S. drug company Binaz Inc., the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis includes health ministries in 80 countries, the World Bank, the United Nations Children's Fund, non-governmental organizations and research institutes.
On the Net:
Global Alliance to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis, http://www.filariasis.org