Prince Alwaleed gives $3m shot to tropical diseases fight

Saudi royal’s foundation backs fight to combat neglected diseases affecting 1.6 billion people globally  

Alwaleed Philanthropies, the giving vehicle of Saudi royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has pledged $3m to the global fight to tackle neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and improve the health of more than 1.6 billion people.

The money will be disbursed over three years to the END Fund, a private initiative backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, which seeks to wipe out five NTDs - including intestinal worms and river blindness – by 2020.

The funding will be focused on the Middle East and Africa, the END fund said in a statement, without specifying the targeted countries or diseases. The pledge was announced on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In addition, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation unveiled grants totaling $12m to partners working to end blinding trachoma by 2020, including $5.1m to The Carter Centre and $5.97m to the New York-based nonprofit Helen Keller International.

Ellen Agler, chief executive of END Fund, said wiping out neglected diseases represents a “best buy” in global health.

“The math makes sense,” she said. “The short-term transformation in individuals’ well-being after treatment is startling, but so too is the long-term impact on national economic development and poverty alleviation for millions.”

Neglected diseases such as rabies, guinea worm and leprosy cause disfigurement, disability and death among millions of poor people in low-income countries, mainly sub-Saharan Africa. Experts estimate more than 1.5 billion people are affected by them, including 875 million children.

The diseases thrive in areas of poverty, where people do not have access to clean water and basic sanitation, and are transmitted mostly by parasites, flies and worms.

The World Health Organisation’s first global report on neglected diseases in 2010 said that while they cost billions of dollars in healthcare and lost productivity, they are often ignored because they affect mainly poor people. 

In 2012, major pharmaceutical firms joined forces with governments, foundations and health organisations to launch a global push to control or wipe out 10 NTDs by 2020.

The campaign is backed by a drug donation programme valued at $4bn annually, with 5.5 billion tablets of NTD medicines donated by pharmaceutical companies.

This, in partnership with disease mapping systems and improved tools for prevention and treatment, has seen progress, for example, against Dracunculiasis, or guinea-worm disease, of which there were just 25 cases reported in 2016 compared to almost 1,800 in 2010.

“Investing in NTD programmes is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve global health,” said Trevor Mundel, president of global health for the Gates Foundation, which has pledged in excess of $360m to end NTDs. “[Neglected diseases] have an outsized economic impact, disabling tens of millions in poor communities around the world and fuelling cycles of poverty.”

Since its founding in 2012, the END Fund has worked in partnership with private actors to raise more than $70m and supported the treatment of more than 100 million people at risk of NTDs.