Exclusive Interview with Dr Neeraj Mistry, Managing Director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases

Dr Neeraj Mistry, Managing Director, Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases/Photo: Agbelessessy/ANA
The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (Global Network), a major program of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, is an advocacy and resource mobilization initiative dedicated to raising the awareness, political will, and funding necessary to control and eliminate the seven most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs): soil-transmitted helminths (hookworm, ascariasis, and trichuriasis), onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, trachoma, and lymphatic filariasis.
The vision of the Global Network is a world free of NTDs where children and families are able to grow, learn and become productive members of their communities. Global Network is committed to working with governments, individuals, institutions and corporations globally to make this a reality as it works towards ending the neglect.
The Managing Director of the Global Network, Dr Neeraj Mistry spoke recently in an exlusive telephone interview to Musah Ibrahim Musah, Editor at AfricaNewsAnalysis on the outcome of the meeting of African Health Ministers and the African Union Commission. The meeting, held in Addis Ababa in April, addressed issues concerning NTDs as well as NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases).
In his role as Managing Director of the Global Network, Dr Mistry has focused his talents on advocacy and resource mobilization efforts bringing like-minded groups and individuals together for the common purpose of controlling and eliminating NTDs.

Excerpts of the Interview:

Musah: How will you characterize the African Union Commission meeting in relation to NTD control and elimination on the African continent?

Dr Mistry: It’s been very important meeting with the African Union Commission because they prioritized two health issues on the agenda. One of them is Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) and the other is NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases). But it was very important that it actually got prioritized on the African Union agenda.

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What targets are envisaged with the adoption of 36 multi-year national NTD control and elimination at the African Union meeting?

This is very, very important because, what it means is that, it’s institutionalized within the country’s national health plan, when each country in Africa has national integrated plan on NTD control. It also means that whereas before, NTDs were addressed by one disease at a time, now it’s moving towards more and integrated control programmes which means that it’s the very same communities that are affected by not just one disease but very often more than one disease, and so we’ve been more efficient in the response by saying when the community health workers go to treat one disease, we also add the drug for the other diseases. This makes the response more comprehensive.

How critical would you say are government leadership and commitment to NTD control and elimination?

That’s the other thing that’s important in having the national plan. If it’s in the national plan for NTD control it also means it gets financed or have the potential to get money from the ministry of finance. And increasingly this is something that we have to see. We have to see national countries, national governments of endemic countries contributing to their own national plans for NTD control. And, unlike HIV and other diseases where the budget is far more expensive and countries need more help the opportunities for countries to co-invest on their national plans for which we want to bring some external donors in the form of the US government and the UK government which are the leading contributors to NTD control.

Experts are of the opinion that we need to focus on interactions, synergies, and challenges of integration of NTD care with management strategies for communicable and non-communicable diseases without eroding the functionality of existing national programmes for NTDs. What’s your view on that?

I think the critical thing that we need to look at is what are the common factors across all these diseases? One, we want to look at what is the biological link between diseases like AIDS, TB, malaria and NTDs as well as some of the NCDs? But the other thing is, the common factor is the communities that are affected and very often the communities that are vulnerable to NTDs, are the ones that are living in the rural areas outside the cities and they are also the communities that are susceptible to other infectious diseases, like AIDS, TB and malaria. And so when we look at the supply chain, the distribution mechanisms, the community health workers etc., that are involved in responding to these diseases, we need to leverage off the common infrastructure to actually make the response more efficient.

Let’s talk about funding. Will you say the need for sustained and increased funding for NTD initiatives is today greater than ever? And are there requirements for increased political and funder commitment?

So, what we certainly have is tremendous progress with very little money in the NTD response. But the opportunity that we have with NTDs is the prospect of eliminating these diseases in the next seven years till 2020 which are based on the global target from the NTD community and the World Health Organization. And this was also re-stated with the London Declaration. And so, the need for funding is critical for a scale-up response when we increase coverage and a typical example is, if we have two African villages with let’s say a river running between it, if we treat one village and not the other, the village that we treated get re-infected from the village that hasn’t been treated. And so, with expanded coverage, of both villages, we can eliminate these diseases and that’s why an injection of additional funding is important to make sure that we actually expand the coverage to reach elimination. If we don’t get an injection of new funding, then we would maintain the level of NTD control that we currently have which will mean that we have to do these programmes for much, much longer. But if we get a new injection of funding, we can accelerate the response, broaden coverage and actually work to elimination.

Did you get the sense at the African Union Health Ministers meeting that governments are prepared to increase funding in their budgetary allocations for NTDs?

I think we’re seeing a new level of political commitment and this has been the call from the Global Network and the African Union Commission to raise the level of awareness of NTDs and to prioritize NTDs on the African health agenda; and now it is left at the country level for the process to work whereby ministries of finance have to work with the ministries of health to actually allocate that funding. But that leadership comes from the highest level, it’s the Heads of States that have to say that NTDs are a priority for their countries.

Regarding the PSA video that was launched recently, has there been any impact in your understanding that the video has helped in raising awareness?

Absolutely, what we saw in a very short period of time since the launch of the PSA video is the number of views of the video online and its well into the four or five hundred thousand range of the number of people that have viewed that. In addition to that we are actually seeing donations coming in from the general public. And these are small donations with people giving $10 or $20 each; but that is an important sign that the general public is actually seeing this as an important issue for us to address and that is the type of message that we actually need to send to the donor governments who are thinking about their development allocations and priorities as well as the endemic country governments to say that this is what the general view is on a disease priority for national development.

About END7

END7 is an international advocacy campaign that seeks to raise the awareness and funding necessary to control and eliminate the seven most common neglected tropical diseases by 2020. The international effort to control and eliminate NTDs has the support of a diverse group of global partners, including the World Health Organization (WHO), national governments, pharmaceutical companies, corporations and individuals. END7 is run by the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, an initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute.

About NTDs

NTDs are a group of 17 parasitic and bacterial infections that are the most common afflictions of the world’s poorest people. They blind, disable and disfigure their victims, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and disease. Research shows that treating NTDs lifts millions out of poverty by ensuring that children stay in school to learn and prosper; by strengthening worker productivity; and by improving maternal and child health.

ABOUT SABIN VACCINE INSTITUTE

Sabin Vaccine Institute (Sabin) is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization made up of scientists, researchers, and advocates dedicated to reducing needless human suffering from vaccine preventable and neglected tropical diseases. Sabin works with governments, leading public and private organizations, and academic institutions to provide solutions for some of the world’s most pervasive health care challenges.

Since its founding in 1993 in honor of the oral polio vaccine developer, Dr. Albert B. Sabin, the Institute has been at the forefront of efforts to control, treat, and eliminate vaccine preventable and neglected tropical diseases by developing new vaccines, advocating use of existing vaccines, and promoting increased access to affordable medical treatments.

Sabin was founded on the legacy and global vision of one of medicine’s most pre-eminent scientific figures, Dr. Albert B. Sabin, who is best known for developing the oral live virus polio vaccine. Dr. Sabin not only dedicated his entire professional career to groundbreaking medical advancements to reduce human suffering, he also waged a tireless and lifelong campaign against poverty and ignorance.

Sabin works to provide greater access to vaccines and essential treatments for hundreds of millions of people stuck in a cycle of pain, poverty and despair. Sabin’s three main programs – Sabin Vaccine Development, the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, and Vaccine Advocacy and Education – strive to uphold Dr. Sabin’s lifelong efforts by developing preventative measures for diseases that place burdens on the world’s poorest countries.

Sabin’s diverse partnerships are key to our efforts to fulfill the organization’s mission. In 2011, the Sabin Product Development Partnership (Sabin PDP) relocated to Houston, Texas to begin a new affiliation with Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH) and Baylor College of Medicine (BCM). The Sabin PDP laboratories are housed in a new, state-of-the-art, 10,000 square-foot facility at TCH, which is part of Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical center.

These and other partnerships with groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, governments, academic institutions, scientists, medical professionals, and non-profit organizations are critical in furthering the development of strategies to reduce human suffering from devastating vaccine preventable and neglected tropical diseases.

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