With Ebola in the Rearview Mirror, Neglected Tropical Disease Research Commands More Attention

When the Ebola outbreak struck West Africa in 2014, normal activities at public health centers came to a screeching halt. This included the research of neglected tropical diseases like river blindness and elephantiasis.

Neglected tropical diseases impact around 1.5 to 2 billion people around the globe, and river blindness and elephantiasis are two of the top offenders. River blindness, clinically known as onchocerciasis, infects some 26 million people in in sub-Saharan Africa. Elephantiasis or lymphatic filariasis, affects over 120 million people in 80 countries around the world.

Related: As Ebola Winds Down, Disease Surveillance Ramps Up

Now that it’s been over a year since the outbreak, Ebola transmission rates have slowed dramatically and West African countries are beginning their slow recovery across all public health sectors, including neglected tropical disease research. The Gates Foundation is also ramping up its efforts in this regard with a $7 million grant to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The grant will allow the university to resume its field research in Liberia, which had been suspended in March of 2014 due to the Ebola outbreak.

Prior to the outbreak, the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis received over $13 million grants from the Gates Foundation to fund field research for neglected tropical diseases. This included 12 field research projects for river blindness and elephantiasis across eight countries in Africa and the Asia-Pacific regions.

The latest Gates grant will also allow for the continuation of the university’s project known as Death to Onchocerciasis and Lymphatic Filariasis or DOLF, which is working to eliminate both diseases in endemic areas of the world via mass drug administration. This work includes giving medication to everyone in these regions, regardless of whether they are sick or not. On the research side of things, the university is looking into the efficacy of biannual mass drug administration efforts and researching more effective treatment regimens for both diseases.

Prior to Ebola, the Gates Foundation awarded over $160 million across 27 grants toward neglected and infectious disease treatment and research. Once Ebola struck in 2014, that number dropped to just over $43 million over 14 grants. That year, the Gates Foundation committed around $50 million toward the global fight to stop disease.

Related: Behind the Gates Foundation’s Research War Room in the Fight Against Neglected Infectious Diseases

Although the Gates Foundation seems to be paying increased attention to its neglected and infectious diseases program, its current funding level is nowhere near what it was pre-Ebola. Its recent grant to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is only one of four neglected disease grants the foundation has awarded so far this year.