Neglected tropical diseases such as hookworm infection and lymphatic filariasis together affect over 100 million people in India but have simple, low-cost drug and vaccine treatments that governments need to promote much more, according to Peter Hotez, Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine, George Washington University.

Speaking to The Hindu after a seminar on “Control of the Neglected Tropical Diseases: Innovative Approaches and Role in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Professor Hotez said that there were approximately 70 million cases of hookworm infection and 30 million cases of lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, in India, with the latter costing the country close to $1 billion per year.

To highlight the extent of the disease in India Professor Hotez explained in his paper that toward the end of his life, Mohandas Gandhi suffered from a hookworm infection a disease, caused by blood-feeding worms in the intestine, and associated with severe anaemia, lethargy, and fatigue.

“The fact that Gandhi's vigorous efforts to wage peace in India may have been slowed because of hookworms is only one of the more dramatic examples of the deep connection between medical health and the promotion of international peace and security,” Professor Hotez said.

He also linked the need to combat these diseases with U.S. foreign policy imperatives, pointing out that there was an “extraordinary opportunity” for the U.S. to improve treatment of these infections in Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Syria and also in other states with nuclear interests, such as India, China and North Korea – where neglected tropical diseases had “devastating consequences” for many.

In particular Professor Hotez said that there was much untapped potential for the U.S. to cooperate with India in further developing new drugs and vaccines for hookworm infection and Leishmaniasis, a disease with extremely high infection rates in Bihar.

He said that even in some developing countries the ratio of public expenditure on nuclear projects to neglected tropical diseases was of the order of magnitude of 10,000 to one. He added that even putting aside a small part of this military expenditure towards the treatment of diseases like hookworm would constitute an enormous anti-poverty step.