Bernard Pécoul: championing the cause of neglected diseases

August 28th, 2010  |  Source: The Lancet

Scientists don't tend to set much store by superstition. Even so, for Bernard Pécoul, then at Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), the fact that a key meeting to set up the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiatives (DNDi) happened on the same day that MSF won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize seemed like a good omen. MSF committed the prize money to finding solutions for neglected diseases, a cause that Pécoul took up with a passion.

Pécoul and MSF have a long history together. After a medical degree from the University of Clermont Ferrand in France, during which he worked in Africa, and a Master of Public Health from Tulane University in the USA, he spent 5 years working as a physician on MSF field projects in Latin America and Asia. But he says he “was left with a lot of questions on how to improve the efficacy of the operations”. So, in 1987, Pécoul's response was to co-found Epicentre, MSF's centre for epidemiological research. In the early stages especially, says Pécoul, the fledgling unit was strongly guided by the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

By the early 1990s, Pécoul was executive director of MSF-France and based in Paris, when he started to realise that scientific progress in developed countries often did not translate to health benefits in developing nations. During an outbreak of shigellosis that devastated Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pécoul was appalled to discover that all MSF had to treat patients were ineffective antibiotics. Even worse, a class of drugs called quinolones that were known to be effective against shigellosis was not available in developing countries. “It was really a shock that we were still using bad drugs at a time that new antibiotics were available in the North”, he says. The fight to make those drugs available would spark one of MSF's most high-profile and successful campaigns, the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. Pécoul also realised, however, that sometimes there were simply no drugs at all because of the dearth of research and development (R&D) for neglected diseases. This understanding—and the drive to change the global paradigm—led Pécoul to set up DNDi in 2003.

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