“Nepal is a microcosm of all of the changes in world health”

Sir Jeremy Farrar is a British medical doctor and researcher with 30 years of experience in tropical and infectious diseases. In 2013, he was appointed director of the Wellcome Trust, one of the biggest global charities working in medical research. Nepali Times caught up with Farrar this week in Kathmandu, a place he visits often. Excerpts from the conversation:

Nepali Times: What explains your interest in Nepal?

Jeremy Farrar: I first came to Nepal in about 1989 or 1990. Since then, I have been working mostly on infectious diseases but increasingly on non-infectious diseases. I spent 18 years in Vietnam and moved back to London 6 years ago. I'm interested in where there are inequitable challenges of health, which I can see getting worse than better, and I think science as part of society can make a difference, and all of that is true in Nepal.

You were with Oxford University collaborating with Patan Hospital.

Most of my work was based on typhoid in Vietnam and Dr Buddha Basnyat of Patan Hospital quite rightly termed South Asia as the ‘capital of typhoid’. The burden of typhoid in this part of the world is massive. So in 2004 I came here and started a partnership that has been ongoing for the last 15 years. It started with typhoid, but now it has branched out to include other infections particularly important in Nepal.

Since you started coming to Nepal how has the health situation here changed?

In some ways Nepal is a microcosm of all of the changes that are happening in low and low-middle-income countries. Nepal is still struggling with the burden of infectious diseases but it is now also having to deal with the double whammy of infectious diseases that have not disappeared and the increasing burden posed by non-communicable diseases. The real problem for countries such as Nepal is dealing with both at the same time, and those require quite different public health measures, and require governments to make informed, evidence-based policy decisions.

Read also:  Myadhe joro aka typhoid fever, Buddha Basnyat

Photo: Sonia Awale

We just suffered an unprecedented dengue epidemic in Kathmandu.  

Dengue is the infectious disease of the 21st century because it is driven by all of the changes we are going to see: environment change, climate change, urbanisation, travel and movement of people and therefore vectors. Cities like Kathmandu are perfect breeding grounds for the Aedes mosquito. Kathmandu's climate is changing, the city is growing exponentially in a haphazard way and the mosquito loves highly dense populations of people. If you put together environmental and climate change and the mosquitoes gradually spreading further north from India into the Tarai and increasingly into Nepal, it's inevitable that Kathmandu and the lower lands of Nepal will suffer from dengue outbreaks.

Read also: Climate-health emergency, Sonia Awale

On top of these, we still have TB and leprosy.

In my professional career of 35 years I have never been more optimistic about tuberculosis. If you take the big three infectious diseases of the world (TB, HIV, malaria), in 30 years HIV has gone from being a death sentence in a few week after diagnosis to a difficult disease but one you can manage long term. In the last 20 years there has been amazing progress in malaria with insecticide-laced bed nets and the Chinese herbal drug called Artimisinin, the most important malaria drug ever invented.

TB has not made that much progress. We are still using a diagnostic test invented in the 19th century. There has been no new tuberculosis drug since the last 40 years. We have not really understood how it transfers from one person to another. But that is being transformed. With the coming of a new pipeline of drugs that are now being used in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the treatment period will shorten, making it much easier. But perhaps more important than that, for the first time there is the possibility of a tuberculosis vaccine that will prevent infection and disease. We have to make sure that it gets developed properly, then manufactured and made accessible in an equitable way at a price that is affordable for everybody.

Read also: 

TB, Sonia Awale

For Nepal, a game-changer in TB control, Buddha Basnyat and Maxine Caws

Wellcome Trust is also involved with snakebite research. What are the real problems tackling this?

Snakebite is the biggest disease nobody has heard of. It affects mostly impoverished people in rural communities who have no political voice. Snakebite treatment is still using 19th century or early 20th century interventions, which are expensive to produce, difficult to access and not available to those who really need them. If people are bitten in low or low-middle income countries, chances are they will never get treated. We are interested in bringing in technologies that have been used in cancer and infectious diseases to produce a treatment that counteracts the snake venom.

Read also: Hiss, Sonia Awale

Is mental health an area you are working on?

In addition to funding discovery science, we have a small number of focused areas, where there has been little progress in the past. Mental health is the next one we are launching. Mental health has not attracted much investment or young people interested in working on it, and it's often placed into different parts of the health system with separate hospitals. Mental health still caries enormous stigma everywhere in the world. So we've not had the investment in science, public health and in clinical care of people, and we haven't had the advances in prevention and treatment. This is not only a health issue but also of social justice and economy. Working in collaboration with various partners we are trying to transform mental health from being an issue of stigma and no progress to one that people are willing to talk about, that becomes a normal part of society and where we make scientific and health progress that will reduce the burden of this massive problem.

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