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Despite progress in medicine, many infectious and rare diseases are still incurable. In the absence of financial incentives for companies to develop drugs for these diseases, strong commitment from governments is needed to finance research in this area.

Since antibiotics were introduced at the end of World War II, the average life expectancy of humans is constantly on the rise. This in itself is a biggest evidence of progress the modern scientific medicine has achieved.  Nowadays, most of common diseases are at least manageable, many completely curable. Many infectious diseases that used to inflict the highest mortality throughout the human history are either eradicated or easily treatable. This became possible as a result of remarkable scientific progress achieved in the last 50 years. Now we understand exactly what’s going on in the body affected by illness. Behind each modern drug there is a solid scientific knowledge and the years of work by scientists, doctors and drug developers.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that each and every disease can be successfully treated. The cures for cardiovascular diseases and cancer, biggest killers in the Western world, are still not found. In addition, there is a huge number of so-called orphan and neglected diseases that remain incurable.

As the names suggest, the reason these diseases are still around is that nobody cares much about finding cure for them.

Forgotten illnesses: the role of finances

The term “orphan diseases” refers to rare illnesses. Most of them are genetic and affect only a very small number of people. Due to the rarity of these diseases, they are difficult to study. Doctors often have no knowledge on the proper methods of treating them or, even worse, can’t diagnose them correctly. But the real problem lies in the fact that modern approach to drug development offers very little hope of getting proper medications against these illnesses in the near future.

Drug development is very expensive – the average cost of new drug comes to well above US$ 1 billion these days.

Pharmaceutical companies developing them must be sure that their investments will be at least compensated. In the situation when the number of individuals affected by a particular disease is too small, the chances to get any income from a new drug are very slim. The result is that companies don’t even attempts to invent cure for rare diseases. Sometimes, research is academia is able to point on a specific and easily achievable way of treating such diseases, but cases like this are very rare. Most of rare diseases get only symptomatic treatments.

The situation is very similar with the so-called neglected diseases. These are diseases affecting mostly the population of those geographic regions where people are too poor and unable to pay for expensive new drugs. Many tropical illnesses such as trypanosomiasis, malaria, schistosomiasis are predominantly found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where income per capita is too small. Tuberculosis is often considered as such neglected disease as well, even though it is seen not only in the tropical region. 

Even though these diseases affect millions of people, the potential income from selling any drugs developed in the future is unlikely to return back the investments into their development.
Continue reading after recommendations

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  • Hotez PJ, Kamath A (2009) Neglected Tropical Diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa: Review of Their Prevalence, Distribution, and Disease Burden. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 3 (8): e412
  • Photo courtesy of Danielle Pereira by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/galeria_miradas/8576020542/
  • Photo courtesy of Bill Brooks by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/8011986@N02/2689975613/

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