In 2009, a new, safe, effective drug combination for human African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, was added to the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines List— the result of an initiative led by MSF, its research and epidemiology center, Epicentre, and DNDi.
Sleeping sickness is among the world’s most neglected diseases. Affecting up to 70,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa each year, it is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly and can be fatal if not addressed. MSF teams began treating it in Uganda in 1986 and soon opened treatment programs in other affected countries.
For years, the only drug available was melarsoprol, a toxic arsenic derivative that killed 1 in 20 patients. From 2001 through 2008, Epicentre conducted research at MSF clinics in Uganda, Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a drug called eflornithine was already in use. Though an improvement over melarsoprol, eflornithine had its own onerous requirements: 56 intravenous infusions over 14 days.
MSF teams thought to combine eflornithine with another drug, nifurtimox. Trial results proved that NECT, as the combination is known, was equally effective and could be administered in just 14 infusions over 7 days. NECT was the first new treatment for sleeping sickness in 25 years. Today, the WHO provides it free of charge to Ministries of Health in affected countries, thanks to drug donations by Bayer and Sanofi-aventis, and to kits created by MSF’s logistics and supplies division. MSF continues to support sleeping sickness treatment in DRC, Central African Republic, Uganda, and South Sudan, and, overall, has treated nearly 50,000 people for the disease over the past 25 years.
Read more in the 2010 Annual Report
Photo: © Marco Baroncini/Corbis