By An-Marie Sevcsik

If a doctor from the 1940s traveled in a time machine to 2006, he would struggle to recognize the medicines now available for conditions ranging from cancer to pimples. But a doctor from the 1940s would easily recognize the available medicines and vaccines for some diseases, because the tools for fighting them haven’t been updated. These diseases are considered neglected — by drug companies that have the resources to produce treatments, and by governments that have the means to fund health research.

Neglected diseases primarily affect the poor and the powerless in many developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. The numbers of people affected by these diseases are enormous, but because the poor cannot afford to purchase expensive medications, they do not represent a market for drug companies. And governments have been slow to help out.

Hope has appeared in the new millennium. For the first time, drug companies such as sanofi-aventis are cooperating with non-profit organizations like the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative to develop easy-to-use, low-cost medications. And, just this month, governments of the 192-nation World Health Organization made a breakthrough by agreeing to develop a global plan of action for neglected diseases research.

For ideas on what you can do, go to Kids for World Health: www.kfwh.org

Anne-Marie Sevcsik works as a medical writer for Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative.