The Globalization of Disease

An Ebola outbreak in London, Dengue Fever in Moscow, Malaria sweeping through Italy, a typhoid epidemic in Portugal or a cholera outbreak in Madrid are not figments of the Hollywood imagination, but a distinct possibility.

At the OECD conference in the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon on Tuesday, it was claimed that if the pharmaceutical industry in the developed countries does not pay enough attention to tropical diseases in the Less Developed Countries (LDCs), these diseases may very well invade the northern hemisphere.

Apart from the threat posed by the frequency of air travel, the phenomenon of global warming creates the climate for dangerous insects to live and breed, at least for a short time, in warmer springs and autumns in countries where tropical diseases were thought to be something a careless traveller caught in Africa. Not any more.

In Africa, malaria kills three thousand children per day, every day. AIDS is rife, diseases like Ebola appear with growing frequency. Without a global programme for vaccine production, warns the Portuguese Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology, these problems could spread beyond the frontiers of Africa. And they are.

For Bernard Kouchner, ex-Minister of Health in France, “This problem is political and not one pertaining to microbiology”. He added that what is missing is pressure by public opinion, because so long as people do not care whether diseases, like doctors, can become “diseases without frontiers”, then governments will not allocate resources to combat the problem. M. Kouchner pointed out that while life expectancy is 43 years of age in LDCs and 83 in EU countries, it is natural that people from the developing world will come to the developed countries for treatment “not as invaders, but as people like us”.

However, it is not only in LDCs where infectious diseases are contracted, as Philippe Kourilsky, of the Pasteur Institute, pointed out: “Nobody is safe from infectious diseases”. While there are situations in which less than one per cent of medicines are allocated to the treatment of tropical diseases and while there are zero resources for outbreaks of these diseases in LDCs, the prospect is bleak: these diseases will increase and spread.

Malaria and viral and bacterial meningitis are examples: even when laboratories produce substances which could be transformed into vaccines, governments are too often reluctant to translate this action into a reaction, forever fearful of the bottom line produced by the personnel in their treasuries.

While people are dying thousands of kilometres away, the political pressure is weak at home, until the number of sick people with relatives in the “host country” start to arrive in droves for treatment, or until enough people from the “host country” itself start to appear for treatment. When the alarm bells start ringing, it may be too late.

Vaccines count for three per cent of the profit-making products for pharmaceutical products. For this reason, Pharma companies have ceased to invest in them, as a rule. The action is, as always, governed by the bottom line. The reaction may very well be much more meaningful than this.


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Author`s name Editorial Team