International researchers launched the first worldwide health research summit Tuesday in a desperate bid to revive research on the so-called "forgotten diseases," the illnesses of the poor that account for half the world's deaths.
While there has been innovation in treating lifestyle diseases of the rich, like obesity and cardiovascular problems, the five-day World Health Organization's Summit on Health Research was tackling the lack of funding and drug development for tropical and infectious diseases; while most are curable, they still kill about 15 million people per year.
At the center of the agenda for researchers from 76 countries are things like the so-called "10-90 gap" -- the fact that only 10 percent of the world's health research budget goes to combat the most severe problems for 90 percent of the population.
"The system has been very successful at developing drugs, diagnostics and vaccines, but much less successful at getting them to people who need them," said Tim Evans, the WHO's assistant director-general, said at the opening ceremony of the summit.
Evans estimated that two-thirds of current child deaths could be prevented with existing technology.
He called for "a research agenda that is not dependent on the private sector," noting that drug companies don't have much incentive to distribute mosquito nets that could protect African children from malaria.
Dr. Bernard Pecoul of Medecins San Frontiers said rich nations and drug companies should not only help make existing medications more accessible, but also develop new medications for the diseases of the poor.
"I'm not criticizing the private sector. They're just not in a very good position to set priorities," Pecoul said, noting there is more money dedicated to developing new anti-cholesterol pills than selling anti-malarial drugs.
"The corporations should open up their laboratories and libraries. It won't earn them any money, but it will improve their image," Pecoul said.