Herbs, soil and hard scientific work have yielded Nobel Prizes in Medicine/Physiology for three scientists whose results now save millions of lives from death and disability due to malaria, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and filariasis (elephantiasis), according to the New York Times. Two of the winners, “Dr. Campbell and Dr. Omura, developed Avermectin, the parent of Ivermectin, a medicine that has nearly eradicated river blindness and radically reduced the incidence of filariasis.” Dr Tu Youyou, “inspired by Chinese traditional medicine in discovering Artemisinin, a drug that is now part of standard anti-malarial regimens and that has reduced death rates from the disease.”
The development of these chemicals into human medicines was a long time coming, and in the case of artemisinin, over 2000 years. The Guardian quotes the Deputy Director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine as saying that, “Artemisinin was discovered when fatalities from malaria were rocketing and the world was terrified we’d be looking at a post-chloroquine era. It has been a real game-changer.”
In fact artemisinin in combination with other medicines or artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) rescued many lives in the face of parasite resistance to earlier first line drugs like chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimentamine (though artemisinin resistance is now growing). ACTs are also made freely available to populations in malaria endemic countries through such programs as the Global Fund to fight against AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM), the US President’s Malaria Initiative, the World Bank and others.
Avermectin began its medical role as a veterinary drug that killed parasites in livestock. Eventually research by Merck based on the similarities between animal and human filarial worms led to the testing and development of ivermectin to control onchocerciasis through annual doses that killed microfilariae.
Not only are both ACTs and ivermectin on WHO’s essential medicines list, but they form the basis of global efforts to eliminate disease. Once Merck determined that ivermectin was safe and effective in humans, it began donations of the drug to what has become the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) and its counterpart that is working to eliminate the disease in the Americas. APOC and its national counterparts now reache people in over 200,000 endemic villages in 18 African countries with annual doses.
While we celebrate the recognition that the drugs and their discoverers are receiving, we should not lose sight of the fact that without good delivery mechanisms these life saving medicines would not reach the poor, neglected, often remote populations who need them.
Beginning in 1995, APOC and the Tropical Disease Research Program of WHO and partners pioneered what has now become known as Community Directed Interventions (CDI) where the thousands of communities “beyond the end of the road” and their selected volunteers organize the annual ivermectin distributions. This community directed approach works for community case management of malaria, too.
Hopefully in the future, groups like APOC will receive Nobel Prize recognition for ensuring that those in need actually receive the medicines they require. In the meantime we encourage more countries to adopt the CDI approach to reduce malaria deaths and work toward the elimination of malaria, onchocerciasis and filariasis.