Geneva/New York, 3 May 2001 — The international humanitarian medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) welcomes today's agreement between the World Health Organization (WHO) and Aventis securing the production of lifesaving medicines to treat sleeping sickness. MSF is particularly glad that Aventis has made a long-term commitment to guarantee the supply of the drugs.
Sleeping sickness is a neurological disease caused by a parasite transmitted by tse tse flies. It is endemic in 36 African countries, affects an estimated 500 000 people, and threatens 60 million more. If left untreated, the disease leads to irreversible coma and death.
WHO and Aventis have signed an agreement that outlines a donation of eflornithine, pentamidine and melarsoprol large enough to cover global need for five years. In addition, the company will donate money to support WHO's programs for sleeping sickness treatment and research. Aventis also agrees to transfer technology and provide technical assistance to potential long-term manufacturers of the drugs.
"This agreement is excellent news for patients, and a major step in the struggle to control sleeping sickness," said Dr Bernard Pécoul, director of the MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. But according to experts, an effective and comprehensive sleeping sickness control program would cost $40 million per year. "It is clear that international donor funding is still necessary to fully control the disease in sub-Saharan Africa", Dr Pécoul said.
The production of eflornithine, the most effective drug to treat sleeping sickness, was stopped by Aventis (then Hoechst Marion Roussel) in 1995 because the drug, used to treat patients in Africa, was not making a profit. It took years of international pressure to find a solution to restart the production of the lifesaving drug. This coincided with the media attention around the launch of Bristol-Myers Squibb's (BMS) VaniqaTM, an eflornithine-based product intended to remove women's facial hair. BMS will be involved in the agreement announced today, by paying for part of the first year's supply of eflornithine. Last year, Bayer announced that it would restart the production of yet two other drugs to treat sleeping sickness. With all of these developments, the five most important sleeping sickness medicines are likely to be available indefinitely. MSF, which has actively participated in bringing abandoned drugs back into production for more than two years, will distribute these key drugs in the affected countries.
MSF has been caring for patients with sleeping sickness since 1985. The organization currently runs seven sleeping sickness control programs in Sudan, Angola, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Congo (Brazzaville). MSF will be scaling up its efforts by starting three new treatment programs by the end of the year. Thanks to the availability of the new drugs, affected governments will be able to expand their programs as well.
MSF also warns that there are other examples of drugs and vaccines to treat and prevent diseases affecting the poor in danger of being abandoned. "It should not be necessary for individual doctors or nurses, or non-governmental organizations, to pressure pharmaceutical companies and governments to act. An international mechanism must be put in place to ensure that essential medicines get produced in sufficient quantities," said Dr Pécoul.