African sleeping sickness is, pretty much, deadly. You get bit by a tsetse fly, you get a protozoa inside you, and if left untreated, you die. Eflornithine was discovered in the 1990′s–it’s nicknamed “the resurrection drug” for its ability to basically cure comatose people infected with African sleeping sickness. When the disease gets really bad, it enters your brain and spinal cord; eflornithine can also enter the brain and spinal cord however, and kill the protozoa making the patient sick. The other major treatment for severe sleeping sickness is called melarsoprol, but it’s much more toxic and much more dangerous; it carries with it a 4-12% risk of killing the patient.
So we’ve got a pretty good drug for treating this serious, fatal disease, and it has few side effects (sore throat). However, it’s surprisingly expensive to make, and since the countries with sleeping sickness are primarily poor, developing nations, drug manufacturers stopped making the drug. No big deal. Sleeping sickness only affects 500,000 people annually. Hi, sarcasm.
In 2001, Aventis, the patent-holder, donated $12.5 million to provide 60,000 doses, and an oral form of the drug is being developed.
Lucky for those dying Africans, eflornithine has a new market: slowing the growth of unwanted facial hair. Personally, I find it disgusting that we went 6 years without a better drug with less side effects (and mortalities) because it wasn’t profitable ($12.5m is pennies for Aventis). But I find it absolutely disgraceful that the unwanted facial hair drug, Vaniqa, advertises using what appears to be a tsetse fly on a woman’s face, as well as other bugs. The quote on the homepage sums it up nicely:
bq. What a burden that has been lifted from my life! I feel so free now to be who I really am. I’m not at all self-conscious with people.
Is this how far we’ve come? The burden of facial hair is more important to us than totally preventable deaths in Africa? We have the means, but not the will to do it.