Nobody loses sleepover sleeping sickness
Campaign focuses on lack of effective, affordable medicines
7 December 1999
Although sleeping sickness is occurring more and more frequently, it is increasingly difficult to obtain medicines against the disease. The drugs are frequently obsolete and no longer effective, and pharmaceutical companies see no point in continuing to produce them. But nobody loses sleep over this problem in the rich West where the drugs are made. Take melarsoprol (Arsobal), for instance. This arsenic containing medicine is used to treat serious cases of sleeping sickness. It was discovered in 1932 and launched on the market as a miracle drug in 1949. Now this 50-year-old medicine helps less and less because the parasite is becoming resistant. In Ibba in southern Sudan the drug fails in about 25% of cases: the patient is not cured. Until recently there was an alternative for these cases, namely eflornithine or DFMO. But because it was not profitable the drug manufacturer ceased production several years ago. MSF, which is confronted with more and more sleeping sickness cases, was extremely concerned about the production halt. The team in Ibba ran out of its last stocks of DFMO at the end of July. The organisation has made great efforts to get the drug back into production. It took three years of negotiation with on the one hand the original manufacturer, Marion Merell Dow, and on the other the World Health Organisation, to whom the manufacture had transferred the patent. In the meantime, a short-term solution has been found. Another manufacturer has agreed to produce DFMO from the last remaining batch of raw material, with the financial support of MSF. Thanks to this stop-gap measure the drug will be available for MSF projects in southern Sudan and elsewhere during the coming year. However, there is still no long-term solution. Hopefully, a Third World manufacturer will be found who is prepared to make the drug at a lower price. Problems like this are one of the reasons why MSF launched an international campaign this autumn, drawing attention to the lack of effective, affordable drugs to treat tropical diseases.