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World Bank, Smithkline Beecham, and WHO to Cooperate on Elephantiasis Elimination

Press Release No:98/1623
Contact:  Gina Cicatelli (202) 458-4166

WASHINGTON, January 26, 1998 To counter the scourge of lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), the World Bank, the healthcare company SmithKline Beecham (SB), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are cooperating on a new program under which SB will donate its drug albendazole free-of-charge to governments and other collaborating organizations working for the global elimination of the disease.

Over 1 billion people in 73 countries are at risk of contracting elephantiasis, and there are over 120 million people already affected. SB will continue donating the drug until the disease is eliminated and will also contribute program assistance and health education. The World Bank, the largest international health-care financier worldwide, will support the partnership on the country-level by incorporating it in specific components in all health, nutrition, and population projects over the next 3 years.

"This will be one of the largest global disease-elimination programs ever undertaken," said Mr. James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, who is currently visiting Africa and meeting with a number of African Heads of State. "Lymphatic filariasis not only disables millions, but also causes massive socio-economic burdens. We are delighted that SmithKline Beecham has generously agreed to collaborate with the countries concerned and with international agencies such as the Bank and WHO."

It is estimated that, because nearly one-fifth of the world's population across the globe is at risk of infection, it will take approximately 20 years to eliminate the disease. The Bank, together with WHO's Filariasis Control Programme, has been working to support the efforts of endemic countries to formulate plans of action, which take advantage of dramatic advances made in filariasis control, to eliminate lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem.

New research has determined that albendazole, a SmithKline Beecham drug which has already become a standard treatment worldwide to combat intestinal parasites, is 99 percent effective against the parasite that causes lymphatic filariasis when simultaneously administered with other antiparasitic drugs. The disease, carried by mosquitoes, often leads to elephantiasis, the disfiguring enlargement of the arms, legs, and genital organs.

The donation by SB will mean that countries with the need, but formerly without sufficient resources to acquire the best medications available to treat filariasis, will now have the opportunity to take advantage of the advances made in filariasis control.

"We expect to see a dramatic decline in lymphatic filariasis within five to six years after the program gets underway later this year," said Mr. Jan Leschly, Chief Executive Officer of SB. "The entire program will run for at least 20 years, longer if necessary. Efforts to eliminate the carrier of the parasite, the mosquitoes, have failed. The best opportunity of eliminating lymphatic filariasis is through medicines used to break the endless cycle of infections between the mosquitoes and humans."

Because of the drug regimen needed to interrupt the parasite's life cycleone dose yearly for 4-5 years to all people in infected areas SmithKline Beechams commitment to donating sufficient albendazole to this programme will require several billion doses.

The donation by SB is being made at a particularly opportune time. The necessary tools and strategies for diagnosing and treating this infection have been developed only recently but have proven so effective that control can now be envisioned by the year 2020.

The World Bank is welcoming this important initiative by SmithKline Beecham in light of the increasing prominence of public-private partnerships in the area of international pharmaceutical cooperation. "SB's exceptionally generous action to address the filariasis problem worldwide is of major importance," commented Dr. Ok Pannenborg, who oversees the Banks health, nutrition and population investments in Africa.

Dr. Pannenborg cautioned, however, that the task at hand is a difficult one and underlined the relevance of Jan Leschleys observation that the program needs to be seen as a long-term effort. "The ownership and commitment by both governmental and private sector programs in the endemic countries concerned to implement these programs vigorously and take advantage of the SB offer, remains after all the real test of effectiveness," concluded Dr. Pannenborg.

Senior health officials from countries expected to benefit from the SB donation have hailed the initiative. "Egypt welcomes this important public-private sector initiative that promises to stimulate enormous progress in our efforts to eliminate lymphatic filariasis globally," said Professor Ismail Sallam, Minister of Health and Population of Egypt.

"We applaude this new donation program and will now move forward to finalize Sri Lanka's plans for a dynamic national filariasis elimination. A large number of voluntary workers and community-based organizations will assist the health authorities in supporting this project that is so important to our national health," added Nimal Siripala de Silva, Minister of Health and Indigenous Medicine of Sri Lanka.

A second major benefit of the use of albendazole for the control of lymphatic filariasis comes from the fact that at the same time albendazole is attacking the filarial parasite it will also cure infections with gastro-intestinal parasites (including hookworm) as well. Thus, the public health benefits of such a treatment regimen, designed to eliminate lymphatic filariasis, will extend even beyond those anticipated from eliminating one of the oldest, most debilitating parasitic diseases of humankind.

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