As reported in the Washington Post, the number of West Nile virus cases in the U.S. is on the rise. Traditionally a disease that affects people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, 48 states in the U.S. have reported cases in 2012 alone. Nearly 2,000 cases and 87 deaths, including one Wednesday in DC, have been reported overall. The West Nile virus, a neglected tropical disease or NTD, can cause flu-like symptoms or, in severe cases, even brain damage.
Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, director of the Texas-based product development partnership Sabin Vaccine Institute, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed addressing the increasing thread of West Nile right here in the U.S., “Tropical Disease: The New Plague of Poverty.” As Hotez points out, West Nile is just one of several NTDs that have a presence in the United States. Dengue fever, another virus transmitted through mosquitoes, has been reported in Texas, Florida and Hawaii. A recent estimate finds that 300,000 individuals in the U.S. have Chagas disease, an infection transmitted through insects that can cause heart failure and even sudden death. These NTDs pose an immediate threat to the health of Americans, particularly in impoverished areas of the South where poorer sanitation and drainage systems allow NTD “carriers” to thrive.
NTDs can go undocumented for long periods of time, can be extremely debilitating and have inflicted a large toll on peoples’ health and economic stability around the world. NTDs paint an increasingly troubling picture for American health. Toxic and ineffective, or in some cases no treatments, exist for many of these NTDs, and better surveillance and monitoring is desperately needed. With little financial incentive, private companies are reluctant to invest in this research. However, there is hope. Federally funded researchers at the National Institutes of Health have identified a new drug that has the potential to treat Chagas disease. Additional clinical trials will determine its safety and efficacy for widespread use. Bloomberg recently reported that another PDP, the Dengue Vaccine Initiative, has developed four dengue vaccines that are currently undergoing clinical trials. Continuing to fund this type of research and development is critical to ensuring that the promise of these vaccines becomes a reality.
In an effort to raise awareness about the importance of funding for NTD research, Research!America hosted a joint forum this summer entitled “Global Health Research and Development and the Hidden Burden of Neglected Tropical Diseases in Texas.” Additional support, including robust federal funding, will result in new prevention and treatment methods that are urgently needed not only to improve the health of individuals around the world, but right here in our own backyards. Please let your congressional representative know that even in today’s tough economic environment, funding for global health and NTD research must be a higher national priority.
A video of Research!America’s Texas forum on neglected tropical diseases is available here.