Rumors and neglected tropical diseases

It’s nice to see a mystery solved. We just saw some major panic in Indonesia about a treatment for a neglected tropical disease. The Jakarta Post reported this morning that, after a mass administration of drugs to fight lymphatic filariasis, “those treated by the drugs started to die or fall ill by the hundreds.” They ran the story under a headline that said “Did Disease-Fighting Drugs Do More Harm Than Good?”


 The news has been spread by worried Indonesian bloggers, and no one seems to believe the denials from the Indonesia Ministry of Health. According to the Post, “Health Minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih was quick to deny the deaths were caused by the drugs, saying only that some underlying diseases were the probable cause.”

If it’s true that the treatment, a combination of the drugs DEC and albendazole, is dangerous, that’s bad stuff. Lymphatic filariasis is also known as elephantiasis and it causes serious suffering and social stigma. A billion people are at risk for it. Treating it is important work.

It turns, out, however, that DEC and albendazole actually carry some unpleasant side effects, especially for people who are infected. In particular, headaches, nausea, and fever – often quite severe.  They’re not long-lasting, or dangerous. Just very unpleasant.

All of this points to the importance of educating people about the treatments they are getting. If there had been some clear discussion of the likely side effects, people would have expected their symptoms. A mass hysteria could have been stopped before it began.