Haiti's Fight Against Elephantitis

"Neglected tropical diseases" have been newly targeted by post-earthquake public health efforts.

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The Washington Post/Getty Images

The earthquake of January 2010 altered the approach of Haiti and its foreign donors to fighting disease, the Washington Post reports on Monday, explaining that the disaster changed minds "about what was possible -- and necessary" when it came to public health. Case in point: the treatment of lymphatic filariasis, a condition also known as "elephantitis" that is spread by mosquitoes and can lead to severe and debilitation swelling of an arm or leg.

Thanks to post-earthquake attention and resources, the Post reports, the capital city is no longer judged out of reach for the goal of a large-scale distribution of drugs to fight this and other parasite-born diseases:

Lymphatic filariasis is a "neglected tropical disease," the name for a group of maladies that have disappeared from industrialized countries or never existed there. Others include onchocerciasis ("river blindness"), schistosomiasis ("snail fever"), soil-based intestinal worms, and the eye infection trachoma. For 1.9 billion people, most of them poor, they are still threats.

Eliminating the diseases has been an object of intense effort and research over the past decade. The work is largely unknown outside the global health community, overshadowed by higher-profile campaigns against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

In 2010, 484 million people worldwide took drugs against filariasis -- more than for any other neglected tropical disease but still only one-third of the people at risk for it ...

Congress began earmarking money for mass drug administrations in 2006, and in 2008 President George W. Bush announced a five-year program to fight neglected tropical diseases. This year, the United States will spend $89 million on them -- roughly 10 percent of the Obama administration's global health budget ...

"There was this feeling that we just couldn't quit. Things had come too far to walk away," said Patrick J. Lammie, a scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has worked on filariasis in Haiti for more than two decades.

As a consequence, for four weeks this past winter, two medicines -- albendazole and diethylcarbamazine (DEC) -- were handed out in Port-au-Prince's schools, markets, churches, factories and public places. They were also delivered to the squatter camps where more than a half-million earthquake-displaced people still lived. In all, about 70 percent of the capital's population took them, according to a CDC survey in the spring.

Read more at the Washington Post.

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