Washington (June 23, 2008) – An analysis published today by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Neglected Tropical Diseases reveals a disturbing trend that diseases similar to the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) plaguing Africa, Asia and Latin America are also occurring frequently among the poorest people in the United States, especially women and children. These diseases -- the “neglected infections of poverty”-- are caused by chronic and debilitating parasitic, bacterial, and congenital infections. Hundreds of thousands of poor Americans primarily in the Mississippi Delta (including post-Katrina Louisiana), Appalachia, the Mexican borderlands, and inner cities needlessly suffer from these infections, which trap them in a cycle of poverty and destitution. However, these neglected infections of poverty have not been prioritized by policy makers and funding agencies. The analysis was conducted by the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, a program of the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
While most Americans have never heard the names of these infections, the analysis, Neglected Infections of Poverty in the United States of America, shows these diseases represent a major cause of chronic disability, impaired child development, and adverse pregnancy outcomes, yet many of them are preventable either with existing methods or through the accelerated development of new drugs and vaccines.
“The fact that these neglected infections of poverty represent some of the greatest health disparities in the United States, but they remain at the bottom of the public health agenda, is a national disgrace,” stated Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, author of the analysis, President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, Executive Director of Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, and Walter G. Ross Professor and Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at The George Washington University.
“These diseases affect the most vulnerable parts of our population, and like similar diseases in the developing world, are completely treatable. We need a comprehensive plan to treat these diseases both here and abroad,” noted former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson.
Health Impacts of Neglected Infections of Poverty
The neglected infections of poverty have severe health impacts, especially among women, children, and under-represented minority populations. Examples include:
- Congenital cytomegalovirus infection, a viral disease transmitted from mother to baby in the womb that occurs in over 6,000 African American babies,resulting in mental retardation and hearing loss.
- Trichomoniasis, a parasitic protozoan infection occurring in approximately880,000 African American women.
- Toxocariasis, a parasitic worm infection that can cause asthma and other symptoms occurring in up to 2.8 million poor African American children.
- Chagas disease, a parasitic cause of severe heart disease, occurring inthousands of Hispanics.
- Cysticercosis, a parasitic worm infection that is now considered the leading cause of epilepsy among Hispanics.
Based on estimates of prevalence and other health and socioeconomic impacts, the most significant neglected helminth infections of poverty in the U.S. are toxocariasis (inner cities and the American South), strongyloidiasis (Appalachia), and cysticercosis (U.S.-Mexico borderlands).
Among the important vector-borne neglected infections are dengue and Chagas disease in the borderlands and in the post- Katrina Louisiana, while congenital infections are prevalent in inner cities and the American South. Trench fever and leptospirosis are also important among the homeless and other disadvantaged urban populations.
Policy Makers Should Make These Infections a National Priority
Hotez notes that the common features of these neglected infections are their: 1) Highly disproportionate health impact on people of color and people living in poverty; 2) Chronic, largely insidious, and disabling features; and 3) Ability to promote poverty because of their impact on child development, pregnancy outcome, and productive capacity.
Hotez called upon policy makers to make these infections a priority on the public health agenda. “Control of these neglected infections is both a highly cost-effective mechanism for lifting disadvantaged populations out of poverty and consistent with our shared American values of equity and equality,” Hotez stated. Despite their poverty-promoting role, the neglected infections of poverty have not been prioritized by policy makers and funding agencies in the U.S. Government. Today, the U.S. spends more than $1 billion annually for potential biodefense threats such as anthrax, smallpox, and avian flu, diseases that have not occurred in the United States. Yet, for the neglected infections of poverty, diseases that cause real suffering among the poor, the federal budget investment is 100 or 1000 times smaller.
“We need a national dialogue about these very important, but neglected conditions that afflict the poorest people in the United States,” says Hotez. Neglected infections of poverty are understudied and not well known even by physicians and public health experts. This lack of understanding and knowledge points to the urgent need to increase surveillance for these infections, use cost effective existing drug control and treatment efforts, implement newborn screenings, and develop new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for these infections.
About Sabin Vaccine Institute
Sabin Vaccine Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing human suffering from infectious and neglected diseases. Through its efforts in vaccine research, development and advocacy, Sabin works to provide greater access to vaccines and essential medicines for millions stuck in pain, poverty and despair. Founded in 1993 in honor of Dr. Albert B. Sabin, discoverer of the oral polio vaccine, the Sabin Institute works with prestigious institutions, scientists, medical professionals, and organizations to provide short and long-term solutions that result in healthier individuals, families and communities around the globe. For more information about Sabin’s research and commitment, visit: www.sabin.org.
About the Global Network
The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases is a major program of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and is a partnership dedicated to eliminating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), the most common infections impacting one billion of the world’s poorest people. The Global Network is comprised of international non-profit organizations with decades of on-the-ground experience in fighting disabling, disfiguring, and deadly NTDs. Through strong collaboration with the World Health Organization, pharmaceutical companies, and disease-endemic countries, the Global Network works to increase access to inexpensive, effective medicines to improve and save lives. For more information, visit: www.globalnetwork.org.
About The George Washington University Medical Center
The George Washington University Medical Center is an internationally recognized interdisciplinary academic health center that has consistently provided high-quality medical care in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for 176 years. The Medical Center comprises the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the 11th oldest medical school in the country; the School of Public Health and Health Services, the only such school in the nation’s capital; GW Hospital, jointly owned and operated by a partnership between The George Washington University and a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, Inc.; and the GW Medical Faculty Associates, an independent faculty practice plan. For more information on GWUMC, visitwww.gwumc.edu.