WASHINGTON — Volunteers and international health workers using donated drugs have successfully treated 80 million people in 37 countries for elephantiasis, a disabling and disfiguring disease.

By giving five consecutive annual treatments of a drug that has been found effective at preventing infection, public health experts believe the disease can be effectively driven out of an area.

In another 20 years, the disease could be eradicated from 80 countries where it is endemic, according to Dr. Eric A. Ottesen, professor of international health at Emory University in Atlanta.

Sponsors meet later this week in Cairo, Egypt, to discuss the next phase of a World Health Organization-directed eradication effort, said Ottesen.

The British pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline, has committed to donating $1 billion worth of a drug that has been found effective in preventing elephantiasis, known to tropical disease experts as lymphatic filariasis.

Victims suffer gross enlargement of a limb or areas of the trunk or head. Health officials say 120 million people in the world carry the elephantiasis infection, and 1 billion are at risk of getting it from microscopic parasitic worms.

GlaxoSmithKline had to build a special plant just to produce the donated drug, Ottesen said.

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The drug, albendazole, was marketed as a deworming agent by SmithKline Beecham, which merged with Glaxo Wellcome in 2000 to form the present company.

The firm's patent on the drug had run out when public health officials discovered several years ago that when combined with other drugs, a single albendazole pill a year would kill the worms that cause elephantiasis and prevent reinfection for a year.

"Our company has already donated 250 million treatments of albendazole to this program, and we will continue to donate as much of the drug as is needed," said J.P. Garnier, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. "We estimate that it will take about 20 years to break the cycle of the disease globally. But we have the proof now that it is practical to eliminate this ghastly disease completely, within our lifetimes."

The company is one of several dozen organizations that have pooled resources to fight the disease.

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