Gates Foundation, Abu Dhabi Pair to Fight Forgotten Diseases -- Update

To tackle dangerous but curable tropical diseases in poor countries, the global health community is following the money -- increasingly to the Persian Gulf.

On Wednesday, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan launched a fund with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to eliminate two persistent and debilitating neglected tropical diseases.

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The $100 million fund will seek to eliminate river blindness, or onchocerciasis, and lymphatic filariasis, which leads to a condition known as elephantiasis, from countries where they circulate in Africa and the Middle East. The Crown Prince will donate $20 million and the Gates Foundation 20% of the total amount raised to the new "Reaching the Last Mile Fund," with a plan to raise the remaining $60 million from others in the region and beyond.

Beyond the capital commitments, GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Merck & Co. are also supporting the eradication effort. GSK will supply treatment to deworm children in target countries while Merck will donate the medication ivermectin to treat parasites linked to lymphatic filariasis and river blindness.

"If we don't double down on investments in innovation, more children will die needlessly and poor health will continue to hold back millions of people and limit the economic potential of many developing countries, " Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist and co-chair of the Gates Foundation, told a forum in Abu Dhabi.

The new fund highlights the Crown Prince's and the United Arab Emirates' emerging role in global aid, including global health causes. "The U.A.E. is quite a significant giver," Mr. Gates said in an interview.

As many as 120 million people in 36 countries are at risk of river blindness, mostly in Africa but also in Latin America and in Yemen. The disease is transmitted by black flies that deposit larvae on human skin, which develop into parasitic worms that cause skin rashes, depigmentation and eye infections that can lead to blindness.

Lymphatic filariasis is an infection caused by parasitic worms that are transmitted by mosquitoes and settle into the human lymphatic system. They can remain there for years before causing disfiguring, painful swelling of body parts, resulting in severe disability. An estimated 856 million people in 52 countries are at risk of infection.

Both diseases are treatable with existing drugs that kill the parasites.

The Gates Foundation, and Mr. Gates personally, are working to persuade the U.A.E., other Middle Eastern countries and rich individuals to contribute more funds to global health as part of its overall philanthropic endeavors, which include humanitarian relief as a result of the Syrian war.

"Overall, the amount of philanthropy in this region if you define it broadly is as high as anywhere in the world, probably higher," Mr. Gates said.

For three of the past four years, from 2013-2016, the U.A.E. has ranked first among aid donors based on a percentage of gross national income, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.A.E. founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan began donating to disease-eradication efforts nearly three decades ago, forming a partnership with the Carter Center, the human-rights nonprofit founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, which leads a global push to eradicate or eliminate neglected tropical diseases.

Between 2011 and 2016, the U.A.E. donated $120 million to help wipe out polio, a priority for the Gates Foundation. The virus continues to circulate in pockets of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. The Crown Prince has also donated to malaria-elimination programs.

Reem Al Hashimy, U.A.E.'s minister of state for international cooperation, says the country needs to join forces with other donors, governments and private companies -- and learn from each other -- to tackle complex global challenges in local settings.

That includes curable diseases that persist in poor and broken health systems, said Maha Barakat, director-general of the health authority for the Abu Dhabi government.

"The last mile of these diseases is the most difficult," she said. "Once you're done, the world will be rid of these diseases forever."

Write to Peter Wonacott at and Betsy McKay at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 15, 2017 14:36 ET (19:36 GMT)