Donating Drugs to Stop Dreadful Diseases

  • Overseas
  • 1987

Private corporations have been key partners in certain philanthropic causes—particularly battles against diseases. Most of the major pharmaceutical companies now have charitable arms through which they give away free or heavily discounted drugs for use with poor populations, especially overseas. Billions of dollars worth of goods are donated in this way every year (see Chart 22 in this book’s Statistics section).

An example is the drug Mectizan. The firm Merck & Co. discovered that it was highly effective in treating onchocerciasis, commonly known as “river blindness,” a disease of low-income tropical countries that causes agonizing itching of the eyes and eventual loss of sight. In 1987 Merck created the first disease-specific drug-donation program in the world with an offer to supply the drug to any person needing it for as long as required. Administered once annually, Mectizan halts development of the infection, with minimal side effects.

In 1998 Merck announced it would be donating the same drug for use against another devastating developing-world plague—lymphatic filariasis, often called elephantiasis, a profoundly disfiguring syndrome caused by a parasitic worm. To stem elephantiasis, Mectizan is administered along with another drug donated by the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company. The two companies established a partnership to supply their life-changing compounds across Africa, in parts of Latin America, and in Yemen. By administering 140 million doses per year, the firms have made elimination of both of these diseases foreseeable within current lifetimes.

A second example of a major overseas drug donation program is Pfizer’s provision of Zithromax to stop trachoma, another infectious eye disease that causes blindness, currently afflicting 41 million people, particularly children. In its advanced stages a person’s eyelashes turn inward and scrape the cornea, an excruciating condition. Pfizer set a goal of eliminating blinding trachoma by 2020, and has so far donated more than 250 Zithromax doses in dozens of countries. Pfizer and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation jointly set up a nonprofit to carry out the treatments internationally. The Gates Foundation, Lions Clubs, and other private donors have become financial partners.