March 23, 2006

Egypt Close to Eradicating Curse of Elephantiasis

LONDON (Reuters) - Egypt is close to eliminating elephantiasis -- one of the world's most disfiguring diseases -- which has plagued the country since the time of the pharaohs, scientists said on Friday.

The condition, known officially as lymphatic filariasis (LF), is caused by a microscopic parasitic worm spread by mosquitoes. It can cause devastating symptoms such as grotesquely swollen limbs, as well as fevers and pain.

Yet researchers reported in the Lancet medical journal that a simple strategy of giving people in affected communities two drugs once a year for five years reduced infection rates, leading to elimination of the disease.

The finding gives hope to a global campaign against LF, which has been endemic in much of Africa and other parts of the tropics for thousands of years.

An autopsy on the 3,000-year-old mummified body of Natsef-Amun, an Egyptian priest during the time of Ramses XI, revealed the presence of filarial worms.

The problem of LF became markedly worse in Egypt during the 1970s, following construction of the Aswan High Dam, and its government was one of the first to adopt a new World Health Organization-recommended mass drug administration strategy.

Gary Weil of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Reda Ramzy of Ain Shams University, Cairo, surveyed villages in two area of Egypt and found that all measures of infection and transmission fell sharply with drug use.

"Our assessments suggest that the Egyptian campaign to eliminate LF, which was implemented by the Egyptian Ministry of Population and Health, has achieved its goals in most areas of the country," Weil said.

The mass drug administration program carried out in Egypt involved giving diethylcarbamazine plus albendazole, a drug donated by British-based GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

Chief Executive Jean-Pierre Garnier said Glaxo was committed to donating as much albendazole as needed to eliminate the disease around the world.