President's budget boosts funds for tropical diseases

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's budget proposes a unique new initiative — battling some tropical diseases not just to improve health but as a national security strategy, Reuters reported Feb. 2.

Funding to fight diseases including parasites that cause disfiguring elephantiasis, hookworms and a blinding eye infection called trachoma, would more than double under the 2011 budget proposal, to $155 million from $65 million.

Most of the new funding comes under the State Department and this is no accident, said Dr. Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and a professor at George Washington University.

"These neglected tropical diseases disproportionately affect countries of global security interest to the United States — countries from the Islamic conference, nuclear weapons countries," Hotez said in an interview.

"This also has important implications for foreign policy and the State Department."

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population, suffer from one or more neglected tropical diseases.

"You have got the most common infections of poor people," Hotez said. "We can do something about it for a fraction of the cost of doing anything else. You can have an extraordinary impact for a low cost."

Hotez and other researchers have published many studies showing that these infections affect not only the health of entire populations, but economies.

"These diseases actually trap people in poverty," Hotez said. Mass drug treatment could help pull entire groups out of poverty, he said.

However advocates for other diseases, notably AIDS, complained that the new budget cuts global funding for some of the biggest programs.

It cuts the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria by $50 million, the nonprofit Global Health Initiative Working Group said in a statement.

The group, which includes the American Public Health Association and the AIDS group AmFAR, called a $151 million increase for maternal and child health "less than half of what would be needed from the U.S. to address the full problem."

With the pandemic of H1N1 flu barely on the wane, the budget cuts funding for pandemic influenza and other new infections by 29 percent to $75 million from $106 million.