With the World Health Organization (WHO) recently declaring the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern,” the risk of vector-borne diseases, which are transmitted by insects like mosquitoes, has been catapulted into the global spotlight.
So not surprisingly, the topic was high on the agenda when I joined a group of experts at the International Society of Neglected Tropical Diseases’ annual conference, ISNTD Bites, last month.
Along with sharing the latest research, disease modelling and surveillance technologies, our task was to find ways to promote even greater collaboration between the many parties involved in the control of vector-borne diseases. With many of these diseases—like Zika—emerging rapidly, it’s a huge and on-going challenge.
Facts About the Dengue Virus
I was at the conference to talk about our dengue program, an important part of our commitment to Global Public Health within the Johnson & Johnson Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies.
Much like Zika, dengue is a vector-borne disease that has not been widely known. It’s also a virus that infects nearly 400 million people each year, causing such symptoms as a fever, rash and muscle and joint pain. It can become life threatening.
The dengue virus is transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It’s a real and present danger in almost all tropical and subtropical regions: It’s already one of the leading causes of hospitalization and death among children in certain countries of Asia and Latin America. And the number of cases is increasing as the disease spreads to new areas and outbreaks become more common.
Our Work to Help Combat the Virus
At Janssen, I lead a team of scientists and medical researchers who work alongside experts from the Wellcome Trust and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Our aim is to develop a first-in-class antiviral drug for both the treatment and prevention of dengue—an important unmet global medical need.
We want to protect travellers and those already living in such vulnerable populations as the Philippines, where the first dengue vaccine recently became available to help reduce symptomatic infections. Both prevention and early treatment will play an increasingly important role in the fight against dengue.
All of which brings me back to ISNTD Bites.
As the WHO pointed out to those of us in attendance, the need for an integrated approach to tackle vector-borne diseases has never been greater. In general, neglected tropical diseases affect more than 1 billion people worldwide, causing malnutrition, disfigurement and social discrimination.
That’s a sixth of the planet’s population—an enormity of scale underlined by Harvard University’s presentation on how they’re using a Google mapping technique to demonstrate dengue incidence around the globe.
Within our company, we recognize that more of the same won’t do. Instead, today’s evolving public health threats require us to undertake new and innovative approaches to achieve long-term impact for entire communities—not just individuals—in the world’s most vulnerable populations.
This fight can only be won if we all work together.
Marnix Van Loock is the dengue team leader for the global public health group. He obtained his Ph.D. in applied biological sciences at the KU Leuven. His research work focuses on infectious diseases, including HIV, cytomegalovirus and dengue.