Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) are preventable infectious diseases that put approximately 1.5 billion people in 149 countries at risk, including 500 million children. Africa accounts for 40 percent of the global burden of NTDs, with all 47 African countries being endemic for at least one of them. These dangerous and destructive diseases result in chronic and debilitating physical and mental symptoms; cause severe disfigurement and disabilities; and have a detrimental impact on life expectancy, education and economic opportunity. They disproportionally affect the most vulnerable, marginalized people in the poorest, most remote communities in Africa and around the world, those with very little means to pay for their treatment and limited access to health care services.
Why is it so important to tackle NTDs with everything we’ve got right now? Because these diseases have been neglected for too long and have ravaged too many of our communities. The impact of NTDs reaches far beyond people’s health. NTDs threaten the economic well-being and livelihoods of the people who contract them, sinking victims ever deeper into poverty and making it impossible for them to reverse the cycle. Most importantly, due to unprecedented global collaboration and philanthropy, in the last five years, the number of people at risk for NTDs fell by 20 percent. The world is coming together to achieve a common set of targets, mobilizing critical financial resources, donating essential drugs, and stepping up with coordinated technical and financial leadership. It all started five years ago, when government leaders, donors, pharmaceutical companies, and representatives from prominent global health and development organizations pledged to unite in their efforts to combat these diseases. These partners signed on to the London Declaration, committing their support for the WHO Roadmap targets to eliminate or control 10 NTDs by 2020.
Now is the time to defeat NTDs. The window of opportunity to achieve our 2020 targets is right in front of us, and we can’t let it close.
Pharmaceutical companies have donated the medicines needed to control and eliminate 10 NTDs, which account for more than US $17.8 billion in drug donations. Since 2012, more than 7 billion treatments have been donated. African public health leaders have stepped up commensurately. In an unprecedented organizational move, WHO/AFRO has created the Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN) to support African countries in their efforts to meet their 2020 targets. ESPEN is designed to bring African nations and the entire international NTD community together to conquer these NTDs through the coordinated delivery of technical support for preventive chemotherapy in endemic African countries. It’s raising awareness about NTDs, advocating for increased funding and stronger political commitment, and pushing forward the policies and interventions that help advance NTD control and elimination. Most crucially, through ESPEN, WHO/AFRO puts the power in the hands of African countries and their national programs, by providing the technical advice and capacity building support they need. Progress would not be possible without the commitment of these endemic countries and their frontline health workers that ensure donated treatments reach the people who need them.
In Geneva this week, global leaders are convening to celebrate progress made toward global targets and define a clear path towards the 2020 goals and beyond. It is our belief that with increased awareness, greater funding from current and new donors, and the cooperation and political will of dedicated and engaged international and national partners, our goal to eliminate and control these NTDs will be met. With billions of lives at risk and with communities and entire nations struggling under the burden of these diseases, it’s time to take focused and unwavering action. We are confident that by 2020, the term Neglected Tropical Diseases will be a misnomer, and we will have achieved the kind of progress that the most impacted populations need and deserve.
Dr. Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti is the Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa.
The Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN) provides African countries with technical assistance and fundraising tools to accelerate the control and elimination of the five Neglected Tropical Diseases amenable to Preventive Chemotherapy (PC-NTDs): Onchocerciasis, Lymphatic Filariasis, Schistosomiasis, Soil Transmitted Helminthiasis and Trachoma. ESPEN is a five-year project nested within the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO) and is inspired by the World Health Organization’s 2020 Roadmap on NTDs.