Which Under-the-Radar Disease Did Gates Just Fund?

Remember syphilis? It's the sexually transmitted infection that stalked Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, before being tamed by antibiotics. It was, as well, famously the focal point of the secret Tuskegee medical experiments in the 1930s and 1940s.

But you don't hear so much about syphilis these days and, in much of the developed world, it's largely been forgotten. The same isn't true in poor countries, however, where the dread diseases of yesterday often still thrive. Nor has the Gates Foundation forgotten about syphilis. 

The foundation recently awarded Tulane a $6.5 million grant to study congenital syphilis. The research will include discovering more effective ways to implement screening methods and treatment options for reducing cases of mother-to-child-transmission of the disease.

Around 1.5 million pregnant women contract syphilis annually. Left untreated, the mother can then pass the infection on to her baby. Babies that are born to mothers with syphilis are often born too early and at a low birth weight—if the baby is born alive at all. Syphilis often leads to stillbirth if the disease is left untreated before the 18th week of pregnancy.

Sounds horrible, right? And the thing that likely has doctors tearing their hair out is the fact that syphilis is easy to detect and is easily treated with penicillin.

That's the kind of challenge that the Gates Foundation and other global health funders like: One with a fix that isn't rocket science, but which does require money, and where a little extra knowledge could go a long way. 

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Health

Tulane’s study, which will receive technical support from the World Health Organization, will be conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. In resource-poor countries such as these two, there is a series of unfortunate circumstances that often leads to pregnant women with syphilis going untreated, all of which the study hopes to address.

Tulane investigators plan to begin by looking at how to reduce the stigma that comes with sexually transmitted diseases as well as increasing awareness of the detection and treatment methods of congenital syphilis. Of course, this is all for naught if healthcare workers do not have access to the necessary diagnostic equipment and antibiotics. Tulane will also address these issues by providing rapid testing and treatment kits to healthcare workers.

Finally, investigators will monitor healthcare workers and offer ongoing feedback that will help them continue to provide effective congenital syphilis detection and treatment options in the DRC and Zambia. Principal investigator Dr. Pierre Buekens, hopes that the interventions implemented in the study will be scalable and integrated into prenatal and perinatal care in other developing countries.

Congenital syphilis isn’t a disease that receives a whole lot of attention from Gates, but it isn’t ignored either. In the past, the foundation awarded a $1.5 million grant to PATH and a $1 million grant to Health Alliance International for the study of congenital syphilis in developing countries.