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DRC government steps up commitment to eliminating sleeping sickness by 2020

January 31, 2018 by PATH

International partners support government in innovative approach to fight devastating disease

Media contact: Kate Davidson | (206) 302-4637 | media@path.org

Seventeen-year-old Nwimi Bankento and her two-year-old daughter Matungulu Gracia, both in advanced stages of sleeping sickness (or HAT), are treated at Roi Boduin Hospital in Chango district, Kinshasa. Both are originally from Bandundu in southern DRC, th

Nwimi Bankento and her two-year-old daughter Matungulu Gracia, both in advanced stages of sleeping sickness (or HAT), are treated at a hospital in Kinshasa. Photo: PATH/Georgina Goodwin

Kinshasa, January 31, 2018—Today, the Minister of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, officially launched the first National Day of Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT). The recognition day celebrates the DRC government's commitment to eliminating HAT by 2020 and outlined the upcoming national strategy for achieving this goal, which includes new technologies and an innovative approach to early screening for the disease. It also recognizes the contributions of a consortium of international partners, including the Belgian Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp (ITM), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), PATH, FIND, and the World Health Organization.

HAT, also known as sleeping sickness, is one of the most neglected—and fatal—diseases in the world. It is transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly and is usually deadly if not treated. Nearly 85 percent of cases occur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but efforts over the last decade have reduced the number of cases in the country from 27,000 in 1996 to fewer than 2,200 in 2015.

A concerted effort is underway to ensure the disease is eliminated in the DRC, which will pave the way for ending the disease worldwide. This effort has been catalyzed by the 2012 London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases, which included a commitment to ending HAT, along with nine other neglected tropical diseases by 2020.

DRC's commitment to eliminate HAT

"Carrying the heaviest burden of HAT cases, the government realized very early on that it needed to take the lead in the fight against this disease that only affects Sub-Saharan Africa. We see our efforts to eliminate this disease and many others as DRC's contribution to making our world a better and healthier place to live in," said DRC Minister of Health Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga.

In early 2018, the DRC government will finalize its strategy for HAT elimination led by the Programme National de Lutte contre la Trypanosomiase Humaine Africaine (PNLTHA). Key to the strategy is stopping transmission of HAT, which requires treating people during the first phase of the disease, when it's much harder to diagnose and often confused with other diseases, like malaria.

The plan to eliminate sleeping sickness relies on a new rapid diagnostic test, treatment, and tsetse fly traps; an awareness-raising campaign; and digital technologies to help find and confirm cases. A cadre of "mini-mobile teams" is going door-to-door in remote provinces, screening more than 3 million people with the rapid test with the goal of finding and treating sleeping sickness before it spreads.

"In the past we have used active screening to reduce sleeping sickness cases significantly, but the moment we let up, the disease came back with a vengeance," said Dr. Eric Mwamba Miaka, director of PNLTHA. "We have learned our lesson. This time we will stay the course until the end."

A strong partnership to transform people's lives

"PATH is honored to work alongside the Congolese communities and government leaders to address some of the country's toughest health problems. The opportunity around HAT is unprecedented. Working hand in hand with national, provincial, and local leaders and armed with resources from donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Belgian government, PATH looks forward to soon celebrating the end of this horrific disease which for generations has debilitated and devastated populations in the DRC. With new innovative treatments and interventions, coupled with determined efforts by national and international actors, we can end sleeping sickness in the DRC once and for all," said Trad Hatton, DRC country program director, PATH.

"While a coordinated response from all actors is absolutely necessary, the sustainable elimination of sleeping sickness will only be possible if new tools—both diagnostics and treatments—are made available. Fexinidazole, a new safe and effective oral drug developed by DNDi with our industrial partner, Sanofi, should be available to patients by 2019. It will represent a major step forward toward the sustainable elimination of the disease. This new all-oral treatment will mark a paradigm shift in the treatment of patients and presents significant advantages over today's treatment—based on intravenous infusions—that can only occur in hospital-based settings," said Dr. Nathalie Strub Wourgaft, medical director, DNDi.

"Through the scientific expertise of ITM and contributions to control efforts, Belgium has been partnering with the DRC against sleeping sickness for over a century. We are pleased to help our Congolese friends give this deadly disease the final push. This ambitious programme also reinforces basic health care, benefiting also the control of other infectious diseases and the health of the local population in general," said Yves Claeys, HAT program coordinator, ITM.

"In the DRC, the key elements needed to eliminate sleeping sickness are all in place. The Congolese government and local communities are deeply committed to seeing an end to the disease. Dedicated partners are developing and delivering the diagnostics, treatments, and vector control needed to identify, treat, and control the spread. We're proud to be a partner in the effort to end the suffering caused this terrible disease," said Matthew Steele, senior program officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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About Programme National de Lutte contre la Trypanosomiase Humaine Africaine

The PNLTHA is a specialized program of the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of Congo whose mission is to organize the fight against HAT throughout the country. It uses strategies such as the reduction of the human reserve of the parasites which is done through the screening, diagnosis and treatment of the disease, as well as reduction of human-tsetse fly contact, which is done through the vector control. The latter involves some other supportive strategies such as epidemiologic surveillance, training, and communication at the community level.

About the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp, Belgium

Founded in 1906, the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp (ITM), Belgium, works to advance medical science to improve the lives of people affected by tropical diseases and poor public health through fundamental and applied research, advanced education and expert services. Students from around the world specialise at ITM and our researchers seek a better understanding of tropical diseases, as well as the organisation and management of health care and disease control, in regions where needs are huge but means are limited. Every year, we vaccinate tens of thousands of travellers and offer preventive and clinical care to returned travellers. As a reference centre for tropical diseases, public health and HIV/AIDS, we provide expert advice and collaborate with partner organisations worldwide.

About DNDi

DNDi is a collaborative, patients' needs-driven, non-profit drug research and development organization that is developing new treatments for neglected diseases, in particular leishmaniasis, human African trypanosomiasis, Chagas disease, specific filarial infections, mycetoma, paediatric HIV, and hepatitis C. Since its inception in 2003, DNDi has delivered seven treatments including nifurtimox-eflornithine combination therapy (NECT) for late-stage sleeping sickness.

About PATH

PATH is the leader in global health innovation. An international nonprofit organization, we save lives and improve health, especially among women and children. We accelerate innovation across five platforms—vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, devices, and system and service innovations—that harness our entrepreneurial insight, scientific and public health expertise, and passion for health equity. By mobilizing partners around the world, we take innovation to scale, working alongside countries primarily in Africa and Asia to tackle their greatest health needs. Together, we deliver measurable results that disrupt the cycle of poor health. Learn more at www.path.org.