Ending neglected tropical diseases to build a better, fairer, healthier world

7 avril 2021

By Dr Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, Director, Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, World Health Organization (WHO) 

The World Health Organization’s new road map for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) 2021–2030 is a turning point in our fight against NTDs. It provides us with a clear route forward and the opportunities to effectively control and eliminate these debilitating diseases.  

Although NTDs continue to go largely unnoticed, they comprise a group of 20 diseases and disease groups that affect more than 1.5 billion people worldwide, with a third living in Africa. NTDs occur predominantly in the poorest communities with little or no access to healthcare systems. A consequence of environmental, social and economic conditions, these diseases perpetuate a cycle of suffering and poverty, often causing severe disfigurement and other long-term disabilities that hinder education, economic growth and overall development.  

I have seen first-hand the disability and suffering these diseases inflict and I know only too well their devastating impact on communities already struggling with poverty. The new road map is vitally important in accelerating action towards ending these preventable and treatable diseases. The Global Summit on Malaria and NTDs in Kigali, Rwanda in June is an opportune moment to support this activity.  

Global leaders will meet during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to discuss our next steps in the battle against NTDs and to help build momentum into the next decade. The road map is central to our upcoming work and has firmly placed NTDs in the global spotlight. It is essential that we take this opportunity to raise awareness and capitalize on increased momentum. 

With 600 million people in Africa requiring treatment for NTDs every year, too many vulnerable people continue to suffer from these treatable and preventable diseases. NTDs have been the subject of less research than other diseases – this has meant that new treatments have developed more slowly. And it is estimated that just 0.6% of global healthcare funding is earmarked for the control of NTDs. This lack of investment is one of the greatest obstacles we face in the fight against NTDs.  

To ensure sustainable progress is achieved, countries should take the lead in controlling these diseases and the conditions that cause them. In March 2020, the African Union Commission held its first experts’ meeting on NTDs to advocate for prioritizing the fight against NTD levels through the allocation of sufficient resources to strengthen national programmes. The meeting revised the African Union Continental Framework for NTDs (2021–2030) and the Common African Position on NTDs. Once endorsed, these documents aim to provide guidance to Member States on fighting NTDs on the continent. The African Union Commission, in collaboration with its Member States, called for accelerated efforts towards the elimination of NTDs in the wake of WHO’s new road map. 

The road map is designed to address critical gaps across multiple diseases by integrating and mainstreaming approaches and actions within national health systems, and across sectors. By setting clear targets and milestones, it also provides opportunities to evaluate, assess and adjust programmatic actions as needed over the next decade. Its 4 overarching global targets for 2030 are: 

  • reduce the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs by 90%; 
  • eliminate at least 1 NTD in at least 100 countries; 
  • eradicate 2 diseases (dracunculiasis and yaws); and 
  • reduce the disability-adjusted life years related to NTDs by 75%. 

Furthermore, the road map will track a set of disease-specific targets and 10 cross-cutting targets, including: a reduction by more than 75% in the number of deaths from vector-borne NTDs; and the promotion of full access to basic water supply, sanitation and hygiene in areas endemic for NTDs.  

The global NTD community has made great progress in recent years, eliminating at least 1 NTD in 42 countries, including Togo and Ghana. With the right approach and funding, we can achieve even greater progress in the coming years. By combining increased investment with stronger accountability and intensified collaboration across sectors, as called for in the new road map, I believe we will go from strength to strength as we unite to combat NTDs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that rapid progress is possible when we come together in partnership and solidarity. The new NTD road map will help ensure that the global health community is engaged in our mission to eliminate NTDs and to raise the funding needed to control, eliminate and eradicate these diseases. Investment in NTDs is not only vital for those directly affected but also one of the most cost-effective investments in public health – treatment for the top 5 NTDs costs less than US$ 0.50 per person.  

Now is the time to stimulate our efforts and sharpen our focus: I encourage all policymakers, donors, political leaders and private sector organizations to embrace the new road map. It will provide guidance, momentum and enthusiasm to our global community.  

World Health Day 2021 focuses on building a fairer, healthier world. We cannot achieve this without tackling NTDs. With the direction provided by the road map, I believe we can mobilize the resources needed to strengthen our health systems, to treat and prevent these diseases of poverty, and, ultimately, to end NTDs once and for all.  

This article was originally published on the Health Policy Watch website.

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