Yaws (also known as pian) is one of those rare diseases never mentioned even once in the classrooms of medical schools in this country. As is often the case with tropical diseases, our neglect of yaws is disproportionate to the harm it causes. Worldwide, almost 80 million people are exposed to the risks associated with this disease. They live in a dozen countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific where the disease is endemic. About 100,000 new cases occur every year, mainly affecting children. The bacterium that causes the disease is a close cousin of the organism responsible for syphilis, but in the case of yaws no sexual contact is needed to spread the infection from one person to another, making, yaws much more contagious. The infection causes large ulcers on the limbs and can lead to permanent disability. To put the problem in perspective, yaws is such a horrible disease that just a couple of cases—if they occurred in Spain—would set off alarm bells everywhere and the disease would be on the front page of every national newspaper.
Luckily for us, yaws is not found in Spain; however, in some parts of the world 10% to 15% of all children are infected. Now, at last, a possible solution has appeared on the horizon: a solution so simple and so cheap that it looks like a joke. The infection can be completely cured with just one dose of an antibiotic called azithromycin—a single pill. The treatment is so cheap that 6 children can be treated for the price of a cup of coffee. Earlier treatments, which involved injections of penicillin, are no longer needed, and the management of yaws has been simplified incredibly. This new treatment has reopened the door to the possibility of eradicating yaws from the planet, a goal that was abandoned after failed attempts over half a century ago. The strategy chosen is to treat everyone living in the areas where yaws is endemic with the goal of permanently interrupting the transmission of the infection.
Over the last five years, yaws has finally emerged from obscurity to occupy a place—this time for good reason—on the front pages of the most prestigious scientific journals. The findings of the studies led by Dr. Oriol Mitjà, an ISGlobal researcher, have given new hope to patients with this disease, and the current campaign to eradicate yaws from the face of the earth may serve as a good model for other diseases that continue to destroy the health of our planet. Whether we meet the challenge is in our hands. We have the drug, we have a clear strategy, so this time we cannot afford to fail.
Lecture by Dr Oriol Mitjà
Dr. Oriol Mitjà, the researcher who led the discovery of a cure for yaws will offer a lecture in CaixaForum Barcelona on 17 December at 19 hours. The conference title is The road towards the eradication of neglected diseases.