Research led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue new guidelines for treating lymphatic filariasis – a devastating tropical disease that can cause elephantiasis. An estimated 70 million people worldwide are infected with the disease, which is spread by mosquitoes. It can cause massive swelling of lymph glands in the legs and lower body, resulting in disfigurement, disability, and social stigma.
The new guidelines are based on studies in Asia and Africa led by Gary Weil, MD, a Washington University infectious disease specialist, and his international colleagues. Their results show that adding the drug ivermectin to the standard combination of diethylcarbamazine and albendazole is more effective than the two-drug regimen and just as safe.
An $8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation allowed Weil and his colleagues to evaluate the triple-drug treatment with studies of more than 23,000 people in India, Haiti, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The foundation recently awarded Weil’s research team an additional two-year, $2.2 million grant to continue to study the new treatment’s impact.
An estimated 800 million people in 53 countries live in areas where lymphatic filariasis is transmitted. The new treatment is projected to eliminate the disease in most endemic areas within three years if enough people take the medications, which are provided for free.