By Clifford Akumu

Researchers at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) and partners hope to speed up the rollout of the first oral drug for treating leishmaniasis (kala-azar) in the region by next year.

The announcement, made during the formal launch of the organization’s 20th Anniversary celebrations in Nairobi, now raises hope for leishmaniasis patients across the Eastern Africa region in rural settings.

Prof Samuel Kariuki, DNDi Eastern Africa Director told Science Africa, “The oral treatment is a major milestone in tackling the neglected patient populations. With this oral treatment, the patients don’t have to be hospitalized, which means we will be able to reach more patients in rural settings. And it can also be offered at the primary care level.”

“We also plan to leverage and work closely with the universal health coverage model by employing community health promoters to help reach the last mile patients with this treatment once it’s rolled out.”

Simon Bolo, Head of Leishmaniasis Access at DNDi explains that a consortium of researchers from DNDi and partners across the East Africa region has conducted clinical trials on the drug and now awaits the World Health Organization (WHO)’s nod for rollout.

More clinical trials are also ongoing in Gonda, an endemic region in Ethiopia. The current treatment for leishmaniasis requires injection at the hospital and being hospitalized for 17 days. The new treatment will probably reduce it to hopefully ten days.

“We are hoping that WHO is going to recommend this new treatment when they meet in November this year. In the next six or seven months, we will be able to have new oral treatments……the first oral drug for treating leishmaniasis in the region,” said Bolo.

He noted that DNDi is already working with regional governments to set the stage for the inclusion of the new oral treatment into country-specific treatment guidelines.

“We are already working with the various governments to make sure that immediately after the WHO’s recommendation, we shall include the treatment in the treatment guidelines in various countries,” added Bolo.

Leishmaniasis is categorized as a neglected tropical disease because it affects mainly poor populations in low-income countries and attracts less treatment and research funding than major diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Visceral Leishmaniasis (VL) or Kala-azar is caused by leishmania parasites and transmitted through the bites of infected female phlebotomine sand flies.

According to WHO, the disease has a case fatality rate of up to 95 percent if left untreated. East and Horn of Africa bear the highest burden of leishmaniasis worldwide with about 60 percent of reported incidences.

“It’s concentrated in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan. We are also working in Uganda and Somalia where there are cases of Kala-azar,” explained Mr Bolo.

In Kenya, the disease is endemic in 11 counties, with the highest disease burden being recorded in the Turkana region, followed by West Pokot where the organization is working.

“But, we have been seeing new endemic foci like Kajiado and this is being attributed to climate change. We are also seeing the re-emergence of Kalaazar like in the Kitui region,” explained Bolo.

As part of its 20th-anniversary celebrations, DNDi launched a charity-themed “Run for Neglected Patients” to raise awareness about neglected diseases, mobilize support for patients and encourage institutional and community efforts to support them.

“Today marks a significant milestone for DNDi. We are celebrating our 20th anniversary, and I am happy to say that we have developed 12 treatments over the last two decades for six deadly diseases. However, there are still gaps and we need new tools for many neglected diseases,” said Prof Kariuki.

He stressed the need for community and local leadership empowerment in neglected disease-endemic regions to boost resource allocation.

“We are looking at engaging the local leadership at the county level to put aside resources that can be utilized to reach the neglected patients. We also want to enhance our community engagement by empowering our communities so that they can understand what is kala-azar, or dengue fever, and how to prevent these diseases,” said Prof Kariuki.

“We are not just treating the patients, but we want to empower them for the future by building schools for their children so that they can grow their own food. If communities are empowered, there will be less of these diseases.”

Other than clinical trials, DNDi has been conducting a lot of capacity building and training of various healthcare workers on Kalaazar’s management. The organization has also expanded its treatment facilities across West Pokot County through the launch of the Sigor treatment centre.

Tegla Loroupe, a renowned Kenyan marathoner, was introduced as the official race ambassador.

The charity run will be preceded by a free medical camp on November 15, where residents will get screened for mycetomia and leishmaniasis, two of the most neglected diseases. They will also receive free consultations for common ailments and drugs to treat them.

“For me and many other residents of West Pokot, this race and the medical camp are incredibly important. By participating in the race and raising awareness, we can make a meaningful change in the lives of those affected by these diseases. Together, we can bring hope to neglected communities,” added Ambassador Lorupe.

The charity run is scheduled to begin on Saturday at 6:30 a.m. along the St. Comboni Kacheliba girls’ primary school road. It will have two stages, each catering to different age groups and physical abilities. The first stage is a 10 km run open to Elite athletes and the community. The second stage is a 5 km run, open for school children and other fun runners.

Interested participants can register for the marathon through the official website,