1974 New Urgency Against Tropical Diseases
In the early 1970s, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation was searching for worthy candidates for its first international grants. The foundation’s namesake, heir to the Avon fortune, had recently doubled its endowment. Now Clark wanted a cause where the needs were palpable and clear progress possible.
Tropical diseases were then getting relatively little attention from research scientists, drug developers, governments, and philanthropists. In the heavily regulated, litigious, and extremely expensive world of pharmaceutical research, the high risks of drug development and low opportunities for economic payback on maladies afflicting only very poor residents of the equatorial regions created serious obstacles to battling the parasitic diseases of the developing world. It was estimated in the mid-1970s that the poor-nation afflictions representing 90 percent of the global disease burden got only 10 percent of global health-research spending. Only about 1 percent of all drugs approved for human use worldwide were specifically for tropical diseases.
And so in 1974, the Clark Foundation committed itself to a program of tropical disease research. Over the next 25 years, a small staff of three steered $90 million of grants into measures aimed at suppressing three particular chronic illnesses, each of which afflicts tens or hundreds of millions of people: schistosomiasis (snail fever), onchocerciasis (river blindness), and trachoma (a painful eye disease).
Of the $32 million Clark spent against schistosomiasis from 1974 to 1994 (with the foundation providing a third of the total spent globally to research that disease), an effort to find a vaccine consumed about half of the funding yet ended without success. However, the field had been advanced considerably when the foundation exited “schisto” research in 1994, and the baton was picked up by the Carter Center, the Gates Foundation, and others. Clark’s work against river blindness followed a very similar course: failure to find a vaccine, but major progress in scientific understanding and public health countermeasures. For trachoma, Clark spurred some of the first systematic research ever conducted on the disease, and the foundation’s mantle was taken up by a promising drug-donation effort that aims to eliminate blinding trachoma by 2020. (See 1987 entry on this list for details.)
- Duke University case study, cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/EMClarkTDRfinal.pdf