The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Sleeping Sickness:
Profit as Dangerous as Tsetse Fly

Aug 17, 2009

Today the most competent pharmaceutical labs in the world are involved in developing a swine flu vaccine. But there’s another fatal disease that hardly gets any attention: African trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as sleeping sickness, carried by the tsetse fly. This disease, raging in sub-Saharan Africa, attacks the nervous system, leading to death. Increasing ever since 1970, this disease infects between 300,000 and 500,000 new people each year. According to the World Health Organization, it is the main cause of mortality in this region of Africa, causing more deaths than AIDS.

While there is no vaccine against trypanosomiasis, there are treatments. The story of one medicine used for trypanosomiasis shows how little human health counts compared to the law of profit.

Aventis, the big pharmaceutical company, abandoned the most efficacious treatment, DFMO, because it didn’t consider the vaccine profitable enough. Aventis even turned the patent over to the World Health Organization, but no company tried to use the patent because the market for a medicine aimed at the poor of Africa wasn’t profitable.

In another twist on the supposed laws of the market, DFMO turned out to be profitable – when used as a depilatory cream in the U.S.! Bristol-Myers Squibb started to make the depilatory, while producing the medicine at a lower cost for Africa.

However, making a medicine isn’t enough. It’s necessary to administer and distribute it, using human beings and a medical infrastructure. First of all, it means screening for the disease, which is fatal when it isn’t caught in time. The World Health Organization estimates that 60 million people are susceptible to sleeping sickness, but only three or four million have been screened. As a result, 80% of those contaminated by the tsetse fly end up dying.

And in recent years, the situation has worsened. The tsetse fly has been chased from its natural savanna habitat by the spreading deserts. Its new habitat is certain big cities of Africa, like Abidjan in Ivory Coast and Kinshasa in Congo, where it threatens to increase the disease among populations there.

The dangers of this disease could be lessened. In some regions of Africa, like Zanzibar, sleeping sickness was completely eradicated through a campaign of sterilization of the tsetse fly. But the African states that are affected by disease don’t have the funds for such a campaign. So it’s not profitable enough for any business to take up.