Supply of sleeping sickness drugs confirmed

Press release: Geneva, May 3, 2001 - The international humanitarian medical aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) welcomes today's agreement between WHO and Aventis securing the production of life-saving medicines to treat sleeping sickness (definition below).

MSF is particularly glad that Aventis has made a long-term commitment to guarantee the supply of the drugs. Last year, Bayer announced that it would restart the production of yet two other drugs to treat sleeping sickness.

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 programmes for sleeping sickness treatment and research. Aventis also agrees to transfer technology and provide technical assistance to potential long-term manufacturers of the drugs.

MSF, which has actively participated in bringing abandoned drugs back into production for more than two years, will distribute the five key drugs in the affected countries.

"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 pan-African sleeping sickness control programme would cost $US40 million per year.

"Considering that the estimated annual value of Aventis' donation is $US 5 million, 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 life-saving drug. This coincided with the media attention around the launch of Bristol-Myers Squibb's (BMS) Vaniqa, an eflornithine-based product intended to remove women's facial hair. In fact, BMS will be involved in the deal announced today, by paying for part of the first year's supply of eflornithine.

MSF has been caring for patients with sleeping sickness since 1985. The organisation currently runs seven sleeping sickness control programmes 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 programmes by the end of the year. Thanks to the availability of the new drugs, affected governments will be able to expand their programmes 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 organisations, 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.