Merck Serono, a division of Merck, has donated its 100 millionth praziquantel tablet to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Schistosomiasis is the second-most prevalent tropical disease in Africa after malaria. It is estimated that more than 200 million people are infected and that around 200,000 die from it in Africa each year. The chronic, parasitic disease is transmitted by flatworms and is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions where poor populations have no access to clean water and sanitary installations. People become infected with the disease by worm larvae mainly in freshwater, such as while working, swimming, fishing or washing their clothes. The miniscule larvae penetrate human skin, mature in the liver and enter the blood vessels. Eggs laid by female adult worms are trapped in tissues and internal organs where they provoke immune reactions that cause damage and disease. 

Praziquantel is the only active ingredient with which all forms of schistosomiasis can be treated. Since praziquantel is also well-tolerated, it is also on the WHO list of essential drugs. 

 Kenya is the fifth most endemic country for schistosomiasis. According to WHO information, more than 11 million Kenyans, most of them children, require appropriate treatment and Merck announced the start of the distribution of the medicine there.  WHO and Merck Serono will officially start with the distribution of praziquantel in Kenya tomorrow morning at a school located 80 km northeast of Nairobi. Merck Serono and WHO staff will participate in a ceremony where Kenyan health officials gave schistosomiasis treatment to children attending Mouku Primary School in Kirinyaga. Depending on their height, children receive between one and five praziquantel tablets. In order to effectively fight the disease, treatment must be repeated several times at yearly intervals.

"The 100 millionth tablet represents a milestone in our donation program in cooperation with WHO," said Stefan Oschmann, Chief Executive Officer of Merck Serono and Member of the Executive Board of Merck. "Since Merck Serono began supporting WHO in the fight against this tropical disease five years ago, more than 28 million children have been treated in 11 African countries. Yet we are only at the beginning of a long journey that will not end until this insidious disease has been eliminated." To date, Merck Serono has been providing WHO annually and free of charge with up to 25 million tablets containing the active ingredient praziquantel. "In the medium term, Merck Serono will increase that number tenfold to 250 million per year. Kenya will also benefit from this," Oschmann added.

 The Permanent Secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, Mark Bor, also welcomed the initiative by the company: "Merck Serono's commitment not only helps infected children, but also strengthens our public health care system. That is because untreated patients often suffer from serious health consequences which cause a great deal of unnecessary suffering and lead to high costs."

The Merck Praziquantel Donation Program was launched in 2007 in partnership with WHO. Merck Serono provides the tablets to WHO and covers the logistic costs of transport to Africa. WHO steers, monitors and documents the distribution of the tablets. The significant increase in the number of tablets from 25 million per year at present to 250 million in the medium term will enable the treatment of around 100 million children per year.