Africa is often the focus of the global development agenda, from HIV/AIDS to economic growth, yet across the continent millions of people are also suffering from a little known group of parasitic and bacterial infections called neglected tropical diseases – or NTDs.
More than one in six people worldwide, including 500 million children, are infected by NTDs – and half that burden is here in Africa. Often transmitted through insects, water or soil, NTDs blind, starve and disable.
They ostracize people from their communities and prevent them from leading productive lives. South Africa is affected by two of these diseases: schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthes (STH).
These diseases are called “neglected” for a reason – despite their impact, they have always been considered secondary health priorities, behind better-known diseases like tuberculosis and mal.
This is curious because NTDs are easy to treat and prevent, and nearly all of the drugs to fight them have been donated by pharmaceutical companies, which makes them some of the most cost-effective medical solutions available today. Providing pills once a year can treat and protect against several of these diseases at once for approximately US$0.50 per person.
For those suffering and at risk, a change has been long overdue – and I am proud to say that in the past year, that change has come.
One year ago, in an unprecedented display of partnership around these diseases, the global health community – donor and NTD-endemic country governments, non-governmental organizations, pharmaceutical companies, global health organisations and others – united to end NTDs as a threat to the world’s poorest people.
Launching the landmark London Declaration on NTDs, they pledged to work together to reach the World Health Organization’s targets to control and eliminate 10 NTDs by 2020.
This month marks the first anniversary of that commitment – and a recently released report marking that occasion underscores just how far we’ve come. Authored by the endorsers of the London Declaration, the report tracks our substantial progress in expanding drug supply and the rise of partnerships in expanding crucial disease treatment efforts.
To me, the most heartening part of the report is that there is great progress in so many sectors. Pharmaceuticals donated almost 200 million more treatments for worm-based diseases like roundworm and elephantiasis. The United States and United Kingdom continued to increase their support, and the emergence of the END Fund galvanized private donations from new sectors.
Most importantly, more NTD affected countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, are designing and launching integrated plans that allow governments to align objectives and make the best use of their resources. The full commitment of national governments to the principles of the London Declaration is a key element to success. Four countries launched these programs last year, and 40 more developed plans.
WHO has also released its Second Report on Neglected Tropical Diseases, highlighting similar themes about the need for partnership and country commitment and detailing the steps necessary to address each disease.
In the next few days, WHO’s Executive Board is likely to consider a resolution calling on all countries to support the 2020 goals – a critical next step to attract the world’s attention and resources.
While results so far have been impressive, more needs to be done. Research and development into new ways of treating, preventing and diagnosing NTDs still has far to go: a lack of adequate diagnostics delays the elimination of lymphatic filariasis in some areas; and a long, risky treatment regimen makes eliminating sleeping sickness more difficult. Along with a global annual funding gap of US$300 million, there are still inadequate human resource and technical capacities.
I know that the path is not always easy. Ghana, my home country, suffers from five of these diseases, and as recently as 1989 recorded nearly 190,000 cases of Guinea worm. In 2007, we committed ourselves to eliminating several NTDs – and with strong political commitment, increased resources and international support, we conquered blinding trachoma in 2009 and Guinea worm in 2011. Ghana’s work continues, but its future is bright.
There is no silver bullet remedy to helping a country break the cycle of poverty, but investing in the health of its population offers one of the best options for unlocking economic potential. With full support both from national governments and from the global community, we can build on this year’s progress and put an end to NTDs on the African continent.
The author is the former president of Ghana (2001-2009) and the NTD Special Envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.