WHO welcomes Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Geneva: WHO has welcomed the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries of drugs that have radically improved treatment against tropical diseases such as malaria, onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis.

The prize for artemisinin is a tribute to the contribution of the Chinese scientific community in the fight against malaria. Artemisinin compounds have become the mainstay of malaria treatment over the past 15 years. They are used in combination therapy to reduce the risk of the development of resistance. All countries with chloroquine-resistant falciparum malaria have adopted artemisinin-based therapies as first-line treatment and have made these medicines available in the public sector. Since 2000, more than 1 billion artemisinin-based treatment courses have been administered to malaria patients.

The prize notes the important benefits from the discovery of a new drug avermectin, the derivatives of which have drastically lowered the incidence of onchocerciasis (also known as river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis. The donation of ivermectin by Merck & Co. in 1987 set an example and changed public health approaches to treatment of neglected tropical diseases by expanding the concept of single-dose preventive treatment against a number of helminth infections and trachoma.

Parasitic diseases affect the world’s poorest populations and represent a huge barrier to improving human health and wellbeing. This year’s Nobel Laureates have developed therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases.

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet

A collaboration of partners built on large scale mass treatment of all at risk individuals created a unique community-based distribution system. In 2014 alone, 139 million people were reached with ivermectin by WHO’s Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis in 18 sub Saharan African countries and 109 million people were treated globally with ivermectin for onchocerciasis.

Although the discovery of ivermectin is decades old, its potential is now recognized from the benefits to more than a billion people who are currently protected every year with preventive chemotherapy. Donated ivermectin paved the way for a series of other large-scale drug donations resulting in free treatment of people against neglected tropical diseases.

The WHO Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases works to prevent and control these and other diseases, which cause immense human suffering and death, through expanded access to diagnosis and treatment. The diseases prioritized by WHO are endemic in 149 countries, affect more than 1.4 billion people and cost developing economies billions of dollars every year.

WHO also hosts TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, a global programme of scientific collaboration that helps facilitate, support and influence efforts to combat diseases of poverty. It is co-sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank and WHO.

The WHO Global Malaria Programme (GMP) is responsible for the coordination of WHO’s global efforts to control and eliminate malaria. The Programme sets evidence-based norms, standards, policies and guidelines to support malaria-affected countries around the world. In 2015, there were an estimated 214 million cases of malaria globally and 438 000 deaths.