By Dr. Neeraj Mistry*
Managing Director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases
Imagine feeling as though you have just donated a pint or two of blood, every day for the rest of your life. Or that you are slowly losing your eyesight because your eyelashes are curling inward and scratching your corneas with every blink. What would it feel like to go through life with limbs so swollen that you are no longer able to use them?
For millions of people living in Africa and more than a billion people worldwide (including 500 million children), these symptoms are part of their everyday reality. Hookworm, trachoma, elephantiasis, roundworm, whip worm, snail fever, and river blindness are seven parasitic and bacterial infections called Neglected Tropical Diseases — or NTDs, that together have a higher health burden on the world’s poor than malaria and tuberculosis.
NTDs are contracted through every day activates such as gathering food, doing laundry or even drinking water. They are a major reason why families in Africa, Latin America and South Asia cannot escape poverty, since they keep children from going to school and parents from working.
At the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, an initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, our mission is to raise the awareness, funds and political will needed to control and ultimately eliminate these devastating diseases. Working with international partners at the highest levels of government, business and society, we are breaking down the logistical and financial barriers to deliver existing NTD treatments to impacted communities around the world.
The good news is that the solution is actually very simple and one of the most cost-effective public health models available. For about 50 cents, we can provide one person with the pills to treat and protect them against all seven major NTDs for an entire year. Pharmaceutical companies donate the pills and we use an integrated approach that treats multiple diseases at once, also known as a mass drug administration (MDA). This means the only real treatment cost is delivery—allowing us to treat large groups for a minimal price.
Consider the story of Georgette, a woman who lives in Rutoke, Burundi. Not long ago, her five children were ill with intestinal worms, parasites that fed on the insides of their bodies and caused swollen bellies, nausea, and weakness. Georgette was unable to help her children as they became so sick that they frequently vomited worms.
But Georgette and her children were able to take advantage of a mass drug administration (MDA) program in their community. Her children received a simple package of pills that helped them feel better, regain their strength, and return to school.
In Africa, we are making great strides to help the millions of families like Georgette’s who suffer from NTDS. In March of this year, Burundi became the first francophone country to launch a national plan to combat NTDs. Burundi made its announcement just a few months after Kenya became the very first country in Africa to produce a comprehensive five-year plan to eliminate NTDs.
Leaders in Africa have also shown their support for eliminating NTDs. The Honorable John A. Kufuor, president of Ghana from 2001-2009, was recently appointed our NTD Special Envoy. Known globally for his work to improve childhood nutrition through school feeding programs, Mr. Kufuor will travel internationally to educate donor
governments on the global NTD burden and the impact of treatment and research and encourage them to incorporate NTD control into existing global health or cross-sectoral development programs.
Finally, in January 2012, the Global Network launched the first-ever public awareness campaign focused on NTDs. Called END7, the campaign relies heavily on social media, not only to educate the general public about these diseases, but also to provide a two-way platform for engagement, transforming our audience from followers to a constituency that is also part of the solution.
As awareness and momentum continue to grow among global political and philanthropic leaders, national governments and the general public, I am confident we will meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2020 targets for NTD control and elimination.
There is still much work left to be done, but together, we can lift a billion people out of poverty and prevent needless suffering among future generations.
*Dr Mistry is Managing Director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases
To learn more or to get involved, visit www.end7.org