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Agency: 4 diseases could be eliminated

For as little as $1 per patient per year, the world could eliminate four tropical diseases by 2007, including the age-old scourge leprosy, the World Health Organization says.

New therapies, like a one-dose leprosy treatment that could be available later this year, and creative disease-fighting strategies in developing countries provide what WHO tropical disease chief Dr. Tore Godal calls an unprecedented window to curb the illnesses.

"There is a real historic opportunity now to eliminate these diseases so they will not haunt us in the future," Godal said. "If we don't do it, we may see drug resistance, and (elimination) will be more difficult in the future."

As laid out in a WHO report, the diseases are:

Chagas disease, which has infected about 18-million people in Latin America and kills 45,000 annually. Spread by "kissing bugs" that bite people sleeping at night and drop parasite-ridden feces, the worms invade the organs, eventually causing heart failure.

River blindness, a parasite spread by black flies that has infected about 18-million people, mostly in Africa and Latin America. The adult worms live in the body for 10 years, annually releasing larvae that travel to the eye and, if not treated, can blind.

Leprosy, the disfiguring infection spread by close contact with victims. It strikes about 1-million every year.

Lymphatic filariasis, spread by mosquitoes to about 120-million people in a tropical belt between India and islands in the Pacific. The parasites live in lymph nodes, disabling their victims by causing gross swelling.

Godal said in an interview that recent discoveries in insect control and therapy make these diseases ripe for elimination as public health threats within 10 years. Elimination means few people would be at risk from the diseases; parasitic infections cannot be eradicated completely because they live in animals.

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