Kenya, Uganda to develop oral drug to treat kala-azar

Thursday April 28 2016
Kala Azar

A dormant anthill near Lodwar-Kakuma road in Turkana. The anthills harbour sand flies that spread kala-azar disease. PHOTO | FILE

Scientists in Kenya and Uganda are developing an oral medication for the treatment of visceral leishmaniasis (VL), also known as kala-azar, a disease that accounts for up to 40,000 deaths in Africa each year.

The scientists from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and Makerere University are searching for an oral treatment that is safe, effective, low-cost and requires only a short course of treatment.

Monique Wasunna, principal researcher for the study at Kemri, said that although sodium stibogluconate and paromomycin (SSG&PM) is currently the most ideal treatment, it takes 17 days of double injections daily to administer the drug to a patient, and this can only be done in hospitals.

“Existing drugs for kala-azar have serious drawbacks in terms of safety, resistance, stability and cost. They have low tolerability, long treatment duration and are difficult to administer,” said Dr Wasunna.

The current cost of a full dose for the VL first line treatment ranges from $44 to $378, depending on the weight of the patient and number of days for the treatment. The oral drug is expected to cost much less than that.

VL is the most deadly parasitic disease after malaria. It affects poor people in arid and semi-arid regions of the world, who are usually in close contact with infectious vectors and domestic animals and livestock.


The disease is characterised by irregular bouts of fever, substantial weight loss, swelling of the spleen and liver, and anaemia, and is fatal if left untreated. The World Health Organisation classifies it among the 17 neglected diseases.

The wider East African region (Ethiopia, Eritrea,  Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Uganda) is the most affected region in Africa with an estimated annual incidence of 29,000 to 56,000 cases.

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