July 17, 2008
Thompson Targets Diseases
By DIANA MARRERO
By DIANA MARREROWashington -- Nearly a year after dropping out of the presidential race, Tommy Thompson is turning his attention to worms.
Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who later served as the country's top health official, has teamed up with a nonprofit health organization to fight hookworm, whipworm and other tropical diseases that affect 1 billion of the world's poorest people.
He says this type of "medical diplomacy" could help build support for the United States among some of the most unstable countries.
"Medical diplomacy works," he said, noting that a Reuters poll after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed American humanitarian efforts dramatically improved public opinion of the U.S. in Indonesia.
So far, much of the global attention on international heath issues has surrounded natural disasters, AIDS and other diseases such as the avian flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome. Thompson wants to spread the word about lesser known illnesses that affect one out of every six people in the world.
"They're called neglected tropical diseases really because they're so hard to pronounce," Thompson said to laughter, going on to name diseases such as ascariasis, schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis.
"This is where we launch a movement to make some of these names household words," said Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which launched the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases two years ago.
Thompson, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump, recently became the group's global ambassador, trying to build support for fighting tropical illnesses caused by parasites and bacterial infections.
Often spread by flies or contaminated water, the diseases can easily be prevented and treated. While they typically don't kill their victims, the ailments can cause blindness and disfigurement. Health experts say they also can keep their victims in an unending cycle of poverty wherein children have trouble learning at school and infected adults might not be able to work.
Public health officials estimate that they can treat people afflicted by those illnesses for about 50 cents per infected person a year. That amounts to about $500 million a year -- money that would mostly go toward the cost of distributing medicines around the world. Pharmaceutical companies have pledged to donate the bulk of the drugs.
The diseases are beginning to get the attention of the major developed nations. Last week, the leaders of the Group of Eight nations agreed to support their treatment. In February, President Bush pledged to increase the amount of U.S. aid that goes to fighting the diseases from $15 million this year to $350 million over five years. Congress must approve the funds.
THE NEGLECTED 7
The most common neglected tropical diseases:
Ascariasis: Impairs childhood growth and development
Whipworm: Causes blood loss and impairs childhood growth and development
Hookworm: Causes blood loss, anemia, malnutrition, mental and physical disabilities
Schistosomiasis: Can cause bladder cancer, kidney, liver and spleen malfunction, and death
Lymphatic filariasis: Causes disfiguring swelling of the legs, scrotum and breasts
Trachoma: Causes blindness
Onchocerciasis: Causes blindness, itching and skin lesions
Source: Global Network for
Neglected Tropical Diseases
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