Twenty-five years ago last month, something big started, a collaborative venture that changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people. In October 1987, Roy Vagelos, then the chief executive of Merck, launched the largest pharmaco-philanthropic venture ever. He approached me, as the head of the Task Force for Child Survival in Atlanta, and offered the drug — now copyrighted as Mectizan — for free if the task force could devise a distribution system.
The original target of treating 6 million people in six years was achieved in four years. Only 15 years after the program started, 250 million treatments had been given. Last year, the Mectizan Donation Program provided 140 million treatments for onchocerciasis in Africa, Latin America and Yemen. A quarter-century after the program began, 1 billion treatments have been provided free by Merck.