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Recognizing Pharmaceutical Philanthropy’s Role In Fighting NTDs

“In October 1987, Roy Vagelos, then the chief executive of [pharmaceutical company] Merck, launched the largest pharmaco-philanthropic venture ever,” William Foege, an epidemiologist and former director of the CDC, writes in a Washington Post opinion piece highlighting the company’s efforts to combat onchocerciasis in the developing world through the free distribution of its drug Mectizan. Initially developed to protect dogs against heartworms, Merck found a human version of the drug “could inhibit the microfilaria of onchocerciasis for a year with a single dose,” Foege continues, adding, “Merck said that it would supply the drug as long as it was needed. Extended surveillance has shown this to be one of the safest drugs ever developed.”

“The original target of treating six million people in six years was achieved in four years,” Foege notes, adding, “A quarter-century after the program began, one billion treatments have been provided free by Merck.” He continues, “This example has been replicated by programs that utilize mass distribution of drugs to treat what are called the ‘neglected tropical diseases’ [NTDs,] diseases that affect one billion of the poorest people on Earth,” adding, “In some of the least recognized but most important global health efforts of this century, pharmaceutical companies are teaming up with more than 50 ministries of health in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF and NGOs” to fight these diseases. Foege concludes, “Some regard it as politically incorrect to thank pharmaceutical companies, but in this case saying thanks seems insufficient. For millions spared the loss of sight and even more spared the burden of itching, there is no adequate way to thank Merck” (11/22).