James Cook University helps see horror disease defeated

James Cook University scientists have played a part in a program that has seen lymphatic filariasis (LF)—also known as elephantiasis—eliminated from four countries.

After more than two decades of effort, Cambodia, The Cook Islands, Niue and Vanuatu have eliminated LF as a public health problem.

Two decades of work sees horror disease defeated
Elephantiasis sufferer, Papua New Guinea (Photo credit: Tom Burkot)

LF can lead to lymphoedema, elephantiasis and hydrocoele—huge swelling of the limbs and genitals of sufferers. It’s caused by parasitic worms transmitted between humans by mosquitoes, a process that has now been effectively interrupted.

Approximately 40 million people suffer from the disease, including 15 million who have full-blown lymphoedema (elephantiasis) and 25 million men who have urogenital swelling.

JCU scientists developed an efficient diagnostic test for the disease, enabling effective targeting and supported ongoing training and surveillance to prevent new infections.

JCU’s Professor Peter Leggat said LF is one of the most debilitating of the neglected tropical diseases.

“Elimination of LF is the result of the sustained efforts of many groups including the countries involved and international agencies including the WHO Collaborating Centre at James Cook University, established in 1996. These efforts provide inspiration to eliminate this disease from the world,” he said.

The four countries that have eliminated the disease join China and the Republic of Korea as the only countries in the WHO Western Pacific Region to eliminate LF as a public health problem.

During 2000–2012, more than 4.45 billion doses of medicine were delivered worldwide. It’s estimated that 96.71 million LF cases were prevented or cured during this period.

The overall economic benefit of the programme during 2000–2007 is conservatively estimated at US$ 24 billion.

WHO Collaborating Centre

James Cook University has been involved with supporting control of neglected tropical diseases since the initial designation of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre (WHOCC) in 1996. It has through various re-designations and broadened its outreach from lymphatic filariasis alone to include soil-transmitted helminthiasis and then other neglected tropical diseases. It has been supported by the Anton Breinl Centre for Public Health and Tropical Medicine until 2012 and then by the School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Sciences. In 2014, it was formally incorporated in the new College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences at JCU.

Studying medicine at JCU

The Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) medical degree at JCU Medical School produces graduates who will be uniquely qualified in the fields of rural, remote and Indigenous health, and tropical medicine. The JCU MBBS degree aspires to what is described by the World Health Organization as “socially accountable medical education—a medical school accepting its obligation to direct education, research and service to priority health concerns of communities that it has a mandate to serve.”

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