Countries affected by so-called ‘neglected tropical diseases’ (NTDs) came together at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this week to talk about their efforts to control, eliminate and eradicate them.
The meeting followed a gathering in the Ethiopian capital Addis-Ababa last December 2014 where several tropical countries and global partners committed to stepping up efforts to fight 11 endemic tropical diseases that have plagued their countries, and devastated communities for centuries but have been vastly under-resourced. Around 290 million Indians suffer from NTDs.
The process began after the elimination of ‘river blindness’ or Onchocerciasis from several West African countries as a result of concerted efforts and lateral thinking. Onchocerciasis is an agonising condition caused by a parasitic worm that brings on itching and ultimately leads to loss of sight.
After the first insecticide-spraying campaign in the 1970s, the disease was eliminated from some countries but remained endemic in others. It was then discovered that Ivermectin, an anti-parasite molecule used to treat animals, was also extremely effective in combating the worm. Not only did it cure patients easily and cheaply, it also proved to have a protective effect.
In 2013 WHO declared that river blindness had been eliminated in Colombia. Today there are high hopes that the disease will be completely eliminated in South America by 2016 and in Africa by 2025.
This success got world health experts thinking that it may be possible to fight other endemic diseases in systematic, simple, yet cheap ways.
At the Geneva session dedicated to NTDs, several countries including Brazil, Burundi, Ethiopia and Sudan, explained what progress has been made so far.
Brazil talked about their school campaign to identify cases of leprosy in under 15s. Out of 6.5 million screenings, 354 cases were detected, cases which would have gone undetected and untreated without the initiative.
Malawi explained its successful campaign to control the parasitic disease lymphatic filariasis (FL) and highlighted the importance of surveillance programmes to confirm and maintain the decrease in prevalence of the disease.
Tim Evans, Director of the World Bank’s Health Department explained that they are interested in NTDs because of their impact on poverty. The funder’s objective is to reach a point when such diseases will no longer be a public health concern. Talking about stepping up the efforts to eradicate NTDs, Mr Evans said “If we move that mountain in the next decade, then we have the prospect of infinite value for future generations.”
Pharmaceutical companies also play their part in this fight. According to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (IFPMA): “For decades individual pharmaceutical companies have researched, developed, and donated medicines to fight disease and improve patients’ lives. In January 2012 the research-based pharmaceutical industry jointly pledged a further 14 billion treatments to help end these debilitating diseases”
For example in Sudan, millions of tablets were donated to fight Schistosomiasis – or snail fever - another parasitic disease. More than 700 million tablets of Mectizan (Merck’s brand name for Ivermectin) have been donated over 16 years to defeat river blindness.
Investing in such programmes and donating treatments is not only a way for pharmaceutical companies to fulfil their corporate social responsibility, but it also identifies opportunities to grow their business by reaching more and new patients. and the loyalty built up among both governments and patients is an invaluable asset.
Beyond the key elements needed for the successful programmes (strengthening of health systems, monitoring, data gathering, mapping, training) the most important message to emerge from the meeting was that such programmes cannot succeed without the full engagement of local communities, and a large number of volunteers.
Ethiopian Health Minister DrKeseteAdmasu, who chaired the meeting, concluded, “With strong health systems, we can deliver a lot and cheaper. We want value for money but also value for many.”
“We want countries to join this noble cause to end NTDs in this world”
Unfortunately India’s Health Minister, Jagat Prakash Nadda, could not attend the session to describe progress in his country where almost 290 million people suffer from NTDs. He was chairing the main debate at the World Health Assembly.
Lila Guhais a student of journalism at the University of the West England, Bristol, UK.