Even as the world welcomed the seven billionth member of the global population this week, medical researchers warned that rapid-growth economies such as India’s still had a high proportion of morbidity with more than 290 million Indians suffering from Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).

In an article on A Disproportionate Burden of NTDs found in India and South Asia, tropical diseases scientists said that although India and South Asia had made significant economic progress, NTDs continued to perpetuate a cycle of poverty among its most disadvantaged populations.

These NTDs include visceral leishmaniasis, also known as “kala-azar,” lymphatic filariasis, which causes elephantiasis, leprosy, dengue fever, rabies and soil transmitted helminth.

Speaking to The Hindu Peter Hotez, an author of the report and President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in the United States, highlighted the strong link between NTDs and poverty, noting that many cases of NTDs had even occurred in the U.S. wherever poverty had been found.

However the scale of NTD infections in India and South Asia was high, he suggested, noting for example that 12 to 17 per cent of all intestinal worm infections globally occurred in India and were often associated with hookworm, whipworm and the Ascaris worm.

With more than half of the major NTDs attaining endemic proportions in India and South Asia the economic loss attributed to these diseases was significant, Dr. Hotez said, indicating that close to $1 billion per year was lost due to lymphatic filariasis alone.

Dr. Hotez also argued that while the government of India had made rapid strides towards eliminating some NTDs such as leprosy, greater coordination between the government and the network of drug and vaccine producers in the private sector would lend additional momentum to this process.

The need for more coordination notwithstanding, there have been some major success stories in India, and among them is the de-worming drive in Bihar between February and April this year, when over 17 million children were de-wormed.

India has also already demonstrated its capacity to create vaccines, Dr. Hotez said, highlighting the fact that the Serum Institute of India was the first institution globally to create a meningococcal A-vaccine. Similarly Hyderabad-based Shantha Biotechnics Ltd. has launched an oral vaccine for preventing cholera.

While mass drug administration programmes for lymphatic filariasis, worms and leprosy could help completely eliminate these NTDs in India, India ought to focus on developing the next generation of drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for NTDs, Dr. Hotez said.

The presence of a sophisticated biotech industry implied the potential for public-private partnerships the results of which would not only bring benefits to the poor in India but to the poor globally, he added. A good example of international coordination in this regard was a partnership between India, Bangladesh and Nepal in a drive to control leishmaniasis that occurs heavily in the border areas between these nations.