As the Sahel food crisis persists, compounded by recent flooding in the region, the World Health Organization (WHO) has appealed to health and development partners to support affected countries prioritize de-worming activities as part of urgent relief efforts.
“Flooding now being experienced in parts of the Sahel, creates the ideal breeding ground for contracting Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) such as bilharzia, and worm-like diseases putting more at risk of malnutrition,” says WHO African Regional Director Dr Luis Gomes Sambo.
“Humanitarian actors should come out in full force and support de-worming activities in affected countries as malnourished children and adults are very susceptible to contracting these NTDs, transmitted via contaminated water and soil.”
Prolonged drought and internal conflict have caused critical hunger in the Sahel region of West Africa which spans Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Nearly 19 million people are food insecure and more than one million children under the age five years are severely malnourished. This situation is exacerbated further by cholera outbreaks in several countries, such as Chad, Cameroon, Mali and Niger.
In Niger alone, some 4,887 cases and 102 deaths were reported between I January to 14 October. In Mali, 219 cholera cases and 19 deaths were reported during the same period. The disease is spreading fast in the countries of the Mano River Basin (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) as well as along the Congo River, (affecting people in both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Already this year, a total of 81 180 cases and 1 584 deaths were reported from 25 countries. DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea, Uganda, and Niger accounted for 92.5% of the total number of cases and 89% of all deaths.
Low quality drinking water supply and inadequate latrine coverage combined with flooding in the affected countries increases the risk of NTDs such as bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) and roundworms, hookworms and whipworms (Soil-Transmitted Helminthiases). The number of food insecure people in the Sahel region is likely to increase due to these diseases.
The full impact of the Sahel crisis will only be felt in the months ahead on peoples’ livelihoods. Integrating de-worming activities is not only feasible and cost-effective: it takes less than 50 cents to treat a person for a year. This is especially important given that only half of the USD $1.6 billion consolidation appeal (CAP) for Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger have been funded.
Experts say that implementing deworming interventions will ensure that people can fully benefit from the food aid distributed. Deworming is one of the safest and most cost-effective measures that can be taken now to save lives and stem a worsening nutritional crisis.
Neglected Topical Diseases: Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of poverty-associated chronic infectious diseases, which are endemic in poor and rural populations in the developing countries of Africa, America and Asia. NTDs affect over 1.4 billion people worldwide and cause severe morbidity and mortality; their impact in sub-Saharan Africa is comparable to malaria or tuberculosis. The diseases, which include river blindness, schistosomiasis, blinding trachoma, human African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness and intestinal worms, are transmitted by insect bites or caused by worms in the soil, and are easily spread in areas with poor sanitation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists 17 diseases as ‘NTDs’. Seven of the most prevalent NTDs can be controlled using preventive chemotherapy therapy (PCT) that has been proven safe and effective and that can be delivered in an integrated manner through mass drug administration. These diseases include schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, and three soil-transmitted helminthes, commonly known as hookworm, roundworm, and whipworm.
NTDs coexist with poverty because they thrive where access to clean water and sanitation are limited and people live without protection from disease vectors. NTDs are recognized as a contributor to poverty since they can impair intellectual development in children, reduce school enrolment, and hinder economic productivity by limiting the ability of infected individuals to work.