Abu Dhabi launches $100m fund to wage war on forgotten diseases

Crown prince and Gates Foundation pair to wipe out river blindness, lymphatic filariasis in Africa and Middle East

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Wednesday launched a $100m fund to help wipe out two diseases that blind and disfigure millions of the world’s poorest people.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan pledged $20m to the fund, and the Gates Foundation up to $20m, to accelerate efforts to eliminate (onchocerciasis) river blindness and lymphatic filariasis from countries in the Middle East and Africa.

The remainder will be raised from a blend of donors, said Maha Barakat, member of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and director general of the Health Authority Abu Dhabi.

The 10-year facility will be managed by the End Fund, a private philanthropic platform targeting neglected tropical diseases, and bolstered by in-kind contributions from drug companies GlaxoSmithKline and MSD, or Merck.

The partnership represents an opportunity to end a disease that threatens the sight of more than 120 million people, said End Fund CEO Ellen Agler.

“It’s a way to close the gap on funding, to attract new donors and to grow the ranks of philanthropists, policymakers and health workers all working to tackle these diseases,” she told Philanthropy Age.

“This fund is not about writing a cheque: it’s about bringing influence, convening power, strategic thinking and scientific capacity to bear on these diseases – and getting us over the finish line,” she added.

The announcement was a highlight of the Reaching the Last Mile summit held in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, an event which supported the emergence of the crown prince as a major actor in global health.

The summit tracked progress in the fight to combat infectious diseases including polio and guinea worm, which health experts believe to be on the brink of eradication. Sheikh Mohamed has given some $250m in funding towards tackling these and other diseases since 2010, most recently donating $5m to the campaign to curb malaria.

The UAE has also played a critical role in leveraging its diplomatic clout to gain access to fragile and unstable regions, helping to broaden polio immunisation campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“It is more than money,” said Barakat. “It is about effectiveness, efficiency and collaboration. It’s about engaging politicians and getting the topic of preventable disease up the political agenda so we can really impact the numbers.”

The crown prince has been a long-term supporter of this work, she said. “He follows the vision of his father, who gave him the best of examples. Nobody should suffer or succumb to preventable disease, and this is something His Highness is a champion of and a true believer in.”

The summit also saw the creation of a research institute in Abu Dhabi, which will join with global partners to shape policies to combat infectious diseases. Philanthropy Age understands the institute is in early stage talks with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, to explore potential collaborations. 

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) including river blindness and LF affect more than 1.5 billion of the world’s poorest people, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Close to 900 million are children.

River blindness, an infection transmitted by the bites of blackflies, is the world’s second-leading infectious cause of blindness. Endemic in 29 countries, the disease is thought to affect some 18 million people worldwide, with 99 per cent of cases in Africa.

LF is a mosquito-borne disease, also known by its symptom elephantiasis, which affects more than 120 million people worldwide. Of those, more than 40 million are incapacitated or disfigured by the disease.

“For years, I think there has been a real focus on diseases that cause early death,” said Agler. “[River blindness and LF] have been forgotten in large part because those affected may be blind, or they can’t walk, but they’re alive. Yet it’s a horrible life to live, and these people are so stigmatized.”

Both NTDs are treatable through mass drug administration. Ivermectin, which will be donated by MSD through the Mectizan Donation Program, treats both river blindness and LF. GlaxoSmithKline will donate the deworming agent albendazole to tackle LF.

“Because the two diseases overlap, there are economies of scale and you get a greater impact,” said Barakat.

"We actually get to cross off the list some diseases that have been plaguing humanity for thousands of years”Four countries in Latin America have been verified as free of river blindness, but Africa remains “ground zero” for those working to combat the disease, Agler said.

“The last mile is a slog, and it’s expensive and it’s technically complex, so it is critical to have international collaboration,” she said.

“But what is exciting about this era we live in, is that we actually get to cross off the list some diseases that have been plaguing humanity for thousands of years.”

The Abu Dhabi-backed fund will play a critical role in that effort, Agler added.

“We need these points of light and leadership around the world. This initiative is what is needed now to inject energy, momentum, vision and strategic planning to get us over the finish line for these diseases.”