During the final presidential debate, research finally got some airtime. President Barack Obama noted that “… if we don’t continue to put money into research and technology that will allow us to create great businesses here in the United States, that’s how we lose to the competition.” Similarly, Mitt Romney emphasized his support for research, saying that “I want to invest in research, providing funding to universities … is great.”
It was great to hear both candidates acknowledge the importance of research for the future. As they explained, investment in research is crucial for supporting universities, creating jobs and maintaining America’s competitive edge (three of Research!America’s Top 10 Reasons Why the U.S. Should Invest in Global Health R&D). Research is also essential in protecting the health of the American people, as highlighted recently by a bipartisan group of Texas representatives.
On October 12, 21 Texas representatives sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking for more action to address the West Nile virus outbreak. Mentioning the significant burden of West Nile in Texas and throughout the country (4,725 cases and 219 fatalities this year alone), legislators requested that the agencies prioritize the development of a FDA-approved West Nile vaccine. Government-funded projects have made progress toward a West Nile vaccine in the past, and additional research investment could help to turn these vaccine candidates into a reality. Research to develop a vaccine is particularly important in light of new information on the long-term burden of West Nile. Recent studies have shown that 40% of West Nile patients still have severe, productivity-limiting symptoms several years after contracting the virus. Other researchers have discovered a link between the virus and chronic kidney disease, even among patients that did not show any West Nile symptoms originally.
In addition to the public health benefits of a West Nile vaccine, research investment into other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) could also save American lives. NTDs like Chagas disease and dengue fever affect thousands of Americans every day, and political leaders must prioritize research for new prevention and treatment methods to fight these diseases around the globe and here at home.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
Brian Vastag, science reporter at The Washington Post, recently found himself infected with the very disease he had been reporting on for months: West Nile virus. Detailing the raging fevers, interrupted sleep patterns and tingling in his arms and feet, he called himself a “West Nile zombie.” Brian’s story highlights the importance of research to develop new prevention, diagnostic and treatment methods for West Nile virus. It took eight weeks and several doctors before an infectious-disease specialist was able to correctly diagnose him with West Nile. Once diagnosed, he still had to endure the fevers, joint aches, headaches and interrupted work and simply wait for the virus to go away on its own. Beyond the agonizing symptoms of the disease, it was estimated that in 2002, West Nile cost the United States about $200 million in direct medical costs. Considering 2012 is on record to be the deadliest year we’ve seen, one can only imagine the medical costs of West Nile this year. As Brian points out in the article, we must acknowledge the true costs of these diseases. Research to develop a West Nile vaccine would not only save lives, but would save millions of dollars in future health care costs and lost worker productivity. Similarly, better diagnostic and treatment options would allow doctors to identify the virus sooner and more effectively treat patients.
In an effort to increase awareness about the importance of research for West Nile and other neglected tropical diseases, Research!America has released a new fact sheet called “NTDs in the United States.” The fact sheet details the burden of NTDs here at home and highlights important NTD research activities in the U.S. To see the fact sheet and learn more about NTDs, please visit www.researchamerica.org/gh_ntds.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
For the second week in a row, an article on the West Nile outbreak has made The Washington Post’s top stories. On September 12, the Post responded to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports indicating that 2012 may be the deadliest year yet for West Nile in the United States. The article suggests that each year may only get worse as human travel increasingly brings us into contact with infected animals, and the viruses continue to evolve. There is currently no vaccine and no effective drugs to treat West Nile. With this growing threat, federal support for neglected tropical disease research has never been more urgent. This research is necessary in order to protect the health and future of Americans and people worldwide. See the article below for a discussion of the current West Nile outbreak as well as the future threat of viral epidemics in the United States.
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.
A recent unsigned editorial by Bloomberg View restates what we’ve been saying for some time: Americans are not immune from global health problems.
The editorial focuses on West Nile virus and dengue, though there are certainly other diseases and conditions that were worthy of inclusion.
Worldwide travel means diseases are more transmissible than ever, and climate change gives disease-carrying mosquitoes more hospitable climates, the editorial notes. And a lack of treatments exacerbates the problem.
“Patients receive acetaminophen for fever and pain, fluids if they are dehydrated, and get-well wishes,” the editorial states. “No vaccines, no cures and no specific medicines exist to prevent or treat dengue or West Nile.”
The editorial lauds the National Institutes of Health for its focus on disease research that remains unattractive to industry and product development partnerships that have allowed new therapies to come to market.
“Although the U.S. is the largest funder of neglected-disease research, its spending declined 5.1 percent in 2010, according to an annual survey conducted by the research group Policy Cures,” the editorial concludes. “As the U.S. outbreaks of West Nile and dengue show, this spending is now a vital investment in the health of American citizens.”