LONDON (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline is to donate up to an extra 400 million doses of its de-worming drug albendazole to the World Health Organisation to treat children in Africa at risk of intestinal worms.
Andrew Witty, chief executive of Europe’s largest drugmaker, said the cost of the donations to GSK would be around 12 million pounds ($19 million) a year and the firm would invest in factories in South Africa and India to increase production of the tablets against worms, or soil-transmitted helminths (STH).
“When combined with existing de-worming programs, this quantity should be sufficient to achieve universal coverage of school-age children across the whole of Africa,” Witty told reporters on a conference call. Shipments of the new donations are expected to start in late 2011.
The new GSK pledge to supply 400 million albendazole tablets for de-worming adds to an existing commitment to donate 600 million tablets a year to a WHO project to eliminate the elephantiasis-causing infection lymphatic filariasis (LF) -- a chronic disease that causes debilitating damage to the lymphatic system, kidneys, arms, legs and genitals.
According to the WHO, intestinal worms or STHs affect more than 1.2 billion people worldwide, including around 300 million living in Africa. Carrying worms contributes to malnutrition, slow growth and development, and hookworm associated anemia in women of child-bearing age contributes significantly to low birth weight and excess infant mortality.
The WHO recommends annual treatment of all children aged between one and 15 years in STH endemic areas with single dose albendazole or mebendazole, a medicine made by rival drug firm Johnson & Johnson.
WHO director-general Margaret Chan welcomed GSK’s move and said albendazole was a safe, effective and easy-to-administer drug which could bring rapid results and long-term benefits.
“The GSK donation means that many millions more will benefit as part of a strategy that can break the cycle of poverty, ill health, poor school performance, and lost productivity,” she said in a statement.
The WHO is due to issue its first report on Thursday on the prevalence and costs of 17 neglected tropical diseases ranging from chagas to dengue fever and African sleeping sickness.
“The scale of what is required to prevent and treat neglected tropical diseases means it is critical we take an integrated approach,” Witty said. “I know there is a real appetite amongst my industry colleagues from many companies to play a full part.
GSK said in March that it was dedicating a facility in India to production of albendazole, which also forms part of a combined treatment for lymphatic filariasis.
Johnson & Johnson has also promised to increase spending on efforts to fight intestinal worms in children, with the hope of donating 200 million doses a year of its treatment mebendazole as part of a five-year aid plan for women and children.
Editing by David Holmes
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