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Aventis reawakens the war on sleeping sickness

3 June 2002 - Geneva - It is a year since pharmaceutical company Aventis committed $25 million to the World Health Organization's fight against sleeping sickness, a disease that threatens the lives of 60 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Progress is already being made.

African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, had been virtually eliminated by 1960 but has now resurged to become one of the greatest killers in Central Africa, causing more deaths than HIV/AIDS in some areas.

In the worst hit provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, seven in ten people have the disease.

Sleeping sickness is caused by the trypanosome parasite and spread by the bloodsucking tsetse fly. It attacks the blood and central nervous system, and is fatal if left untreated. Some sufferers die in weeks, others unwittingly carry the infectious disease for many years.

Aventis' five-year partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) addresses three key areas: the management and control of sleeping sickness; research and development of new treatments; and drug supply in collaboration with humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

When sleeping sickness is diagnosed early, the chances of curing it are high, but the WHO estimates that of the half a million people suffering from the disease, only 10 % receive treatment. The year-old partnership is already working to improve this ratio.

So far, Aventis has donated over 650,000 vials of three key drugs used to treat the disease - pentamidine, melarsoprol and eflornithine. MSF has already distributed 200,000 of these vials in 15 African countries. Pharmaceutical firm Bristol-Myers Squibb has also agreed to fund the supply of material to produce a year's supply of eflornithine.

In addition, the first year's donations of US$ 2,500,000 have enabled WHO teams to start screening affected areas, training technicians and developing new treatments through the UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases. Further sums will be released over the coming four years.

"We are delighted to have forged this partnership with the WHO and to play an important role in combating this dreaded disease," said Richard J. Markham, Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of Aventis.

"We are committed to playing an important role in improving the quality of human life and contributing to the sustainable development of our world," he said.

According to WHO's Dr Jean Jannin, the fight to manage the disease has been an uphill struggle. He said: "A stock of infected people has been developing since the sixties and the iceberg is growing. Now, after all this time, something is being done. Aventis' involvement has been like a breath of oxygen for us."

Dr Jannin has just returned from a trip to the severely affected area of Doba in the South of Chad. He said that Aventis' participation had enabled the organisation to provide training and new equipment for a team to tour the area, screening people for trypanosomes so that carriers could be treated.

"We found over 150 patients on this first tour," said Dr Jannin. "Until now, many teams were not able to screen communities, sometimes for very simple reasons such as a missing tyre."

Aventis has helped supply eight new off-road vehicles to put screening and treatment teams back on track in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr Jannin says the partnership is already enabling links to develop between badly hit countries so that skills and expertise gained in one area can benefit other areas lacking trained personnel. He hopes a new series of international workshops and seminars on African trypanosomiasis for doctors, veterinarians and scientists will encourage this exchange of knowledge and ensure the fight continues.

WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said: "We are deeply gratified by the impressive commitment of Aventis to this cause. We hope that others, inspired by our work, will join us, as much remains to be done."

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