Public Health

Mental Health Often Overlooked In Developing World

When you think about the big health challenges in the developing world, we'd guess that your mind first turns to such infectious scourges as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

You'd be right. But that's not the whole picture, as we heard this morning when we sat down for coffee with Dr. Robert Sebbag, who's in charge of improving access to medicines at drug giant Sanofi-Aventis.

Sebbag made a rather passionate case for improving the way mental illness is perceived and cared for in the developing world. Psychiatric hosptials, even where the exist in developing countries, are often little more than jails. And misperceptions about epilepsy leave people stigmatized and shunned.

"Education is the key," Sebbag said. Epilepsy and mental illnesses are "diseases that can be managed," he said.

Epilepsy is the most common serious neurological condition around, and at least 4 in 5 people with epilepsy live in the developing world.

Few countries have tackled the problem, even though treatment is pretty cheap. For $6 a year, a person with epilepsy in the developing world can be treated for seizures, Sebbag told us.

Two widely used epilepsy drugs — phenobarbital and sodium valproate — made by Sanofi-Aventis are on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines. The company is making them available in developing countries at discounted prices and is funding improvements in infrastructure in some places.

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