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Commentary

Disease Researchers Neglecting World Poor

April 30, 2002|FRANKLIN HUANG and MATT STREMLAU | Franklin Huang is a medical student at Washington University School of Medicine. Matt Stremlau is a molecular biology PhD candidate at Harvard Medical School.

Of the 300 or so candidates seeking doctorates in molecular biology at Harvard Medical School, only two are studying malaria, a disease that kills at least one African every 30 seconds.

Unfortunately, the paltry level of interest expressed by today's young scientists in curing diseases that affect the poorest of the poor is not surprising. Each year, only about 5% of the $60 billion spent worldwide on biomedical research targets the illnesses that most affect 95% of the world's poorest populations, according to Nature magazine.

This long-standing trend is not only ethically egregious, it also is bad economic policy. U.S. scientists are one group that should take the lead in combating infectious diseases prevalent in developing countries.

Biomedical researchers in particular must take a stronger role in addressing the deepening global health crisis--a crisis born more of a lack of attention than a dearth of scientific solutions.

Several factors cause this trend to be so entrenched within our nation's top scientific institutions. Most significantly, governments have failed to create the financial incentive essential to encouraging researchers to tackle diseases that are endemic in poor countries.

No new anti-tuberculosis drugs have been developed in 30 years. Except in the case of HIV research, most funding is allocated for health issues confronted primarily by wealthy countries. Each year, spending on malaria research amounts to $84 million, or $42 per fatality, but funding for asthma research is about $800 million annually, or $500 per fatality. Although asthma is a serious health concern, estimates suggest that malaria saps the collective economic strength of sub-Saharan Africa by as much as 50% a year.

A second reason that scientists ignore many of the globe's most pressing public health issues stems from the way we are trained. Most graduate programs focus almost exclusively on a limited group of health problems, such as cancer or genetic disorders, common in developed economies. Malaria and tuberculosis are rarely discussed in the classrooms where doctors and researchers are trained.

Graduate school curricula should reflect global needs and realities by designing classes that prepare students to eradicate diseases that threaten the health of the majority of the world's population. Without this commitment to training truly globally minded scientists, a vaccine for malaria may never be developed.

The international scientific community must dramatically increase its financial and institutional support for young scientists who wish to heal the damage that infectious disease inflicts on the planet's most war-racked and impoverished nations. Though it might be difficult to persuade the few nations that would contribute to pony up the $28 billion recently recommended by the World Health Organization, the dividends from such an investment in increased productivity and lives saved would be incalculable.

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