How neglected are neglected diseases?

The World Health Organization uses the disability-adjusted life year (DALY), a time-based measure that combines years of life lost due to premature mortality and years of life lost due to time lived in states of less than full health,  to measure the burden of diseases and health-related conditions. Estimating DALYS for neglected tropical diseases is problematic as the full data necessary for accurate DALY calculations are not always available in resource-limited settings. So, it’s possible NTDs suffer from a double-whammy: the DALYs attributable to an NTD may be underestimated owing to a lack of sufficiently robust data but because DALYs are taken into account when allocating funds for prevention and healthcare, funding for research into, and treatment of,  NTDs suffers more than it should.

To probe whether this is a real problem, Dieter Vanderelst and Niko Speybroeck  carried out a case-control study comparing the number of publications for 13 NTDS with 13 non-NTDs that have comparable DALYs.   The study has just been published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. They  searched for publications in PubMed and the Web of Science and found that NTDs were less-researched than their matched non-NTD controls. The discrepancy was larger in the Web of Science, and the authors attribute this to the Web of Science featuring more traditional journals that may have tended to publish less NTD research. One limitation of this study is the significant variance in the data. Querying Google provided a similar result – more people search for information on non-NTDs with matched DALYs compared with NTDs.  There are some positive findings, as the discrepancy in research published between the two matched sets of papers peaked in 2003-2004 and now seems to be on the decrease. The authors call for better estimates of the burden of disease due to NTDs, as more accurate DALYs might provoke direction of more resources into tackling the problems caused by these diseases.

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