Many of the world’s most horrific, painful, and disfiguring diseases have begun to disappear.
Yet the threat isn’t over. In many parts of the developing world, public health workers are working hard to contain the spread of many of these illnesses — primarily by increasing peoples’ access to the shots and pills we so often take for granted.
New, revolutionary treatments have also had a big effect, but gains in this area have stalled in recent decades. Three scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize on Monday are credited with coming up with two drugs that have “radically changed [that] situation.”
They are Avermectin, a new drug whose derivative, Ivermectin, has come close to wiping out river blindness and has slashed the incidence of lymphatic filariasis, and Artemisinin, a drug that has dramatically reduced the death rates from malaria.
Artemisinin to fight Malaria
More than half a million people — many of them children — are killed by Malaria each year. Over the past 15 years, however, many of those deaths have been prevented, according to a recent
WHO and UNICEF report.
And while simple solutions, including bed nets treated with insecticide, appeared to make the most difference in bringing down incidence rates, the Nobel-prize winning drugs, known as artemisinin-based combination therapies, also accounted for a large chunk of the total Malaria cases that were prevented.
Ivermectin to battle filariasis and river blindness
Lymphatic filariasis and river blindness are infections caused by parasites.
Filariasis can be insidious: People are often first infected with the parasites that cause it as children, but the damage these parasites causes can remain invisible until an infected person is an adult. Around that time, people with filariasis can start to develop elephantiasis, a condition that involves parts of the body swelling to massive proportions.
Using medicines like the one that just won the Nobel Prize, the WHO hopes to totally wipe out the illness by 2020. These treatments work by clearing baby parasites from the blood and stopping them from spreading to new mosquitoes. When this is done in an area repeatedly for about five years, it can wipe out the disease.
River blindness can develop silently as well, but many sufferers develop symptoms within days or weeks of infection. The parasitic worms that cause it are carried by small, black flies living near rivers across Sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
Once they get inside the skin, the worms mate and reproduce. Each day, one worm can spawn another thousand baby worms. As they spread throughout the body of an infected person, the parasites infect the skin and eyes, where they can cause blindness, skin discoloration, intense itching, and rashes.
Public health workers are working to eliminate the disease — or at least limit its spread — by giving out a medicine called Mectizan, which kills the parasite larvae in the body (and can prevent blindness) and blocks the virus from spreading to others. They have also had some success using Ivermectin, the treatment that just won the Nobel, to help prevent damage to the front of the eye in infected people.
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