As you might expect from the name, you probably haven’t heard of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Things like the ghastly Guinea worm or the grim loa loa parasite barely pop up on anyone’s radar, despite the fact that millions upon millions of people, almost invariably in low-income nations, are afflicted by them.
However, thanks to a huge initiative by public and private sector members all over the world to stamp out NTDs, 400 million people no longer need treatment for them. Now, a new report highlights that progress is marching ever forwards: More than 1 billion of the world’s poorest people were finally given treatment for NTDs in 2016 alone.
Released at the Universal Health Coverage Forum in Tokyo, the 5th Progress Report of the London Declaration on NTDs also reveals that several of the pathogens and parasites are backed into a corner. In 2017, there were only 26 cases of the oft-excruciating Guinea worm across the entire planet. This is a drop of 98 percent from 2011, when there were around 1,060 cases.
Sleeping sickness – technically known as human African trypanosomiasis – was diagnosed 2,184 times in 2016, down from 6,747 in 2011. Lymphatic filariasis (LF), better known as elephantitis, has been eliminated in 10 countries as a public health problem, with four eliminations taking place this year alone.
Julie Jacobson, the Senior Program Officer working on NTDs for the BMGF, explains that LF is now being attacked with a “revolutionary new treatment” involving the combination of three existing drugs.
“The clear results of initial trials sparked extraordinary levels of collaboration amongst partners, moving this breakthrough from concept to approval in just over two years,” she notes. “Thanks to these collaborative efforts, triple drug therapy is now poised to benefit up to 514 million people across 24 countries.”
The London Declaration here refers to a 2012 gathering in the eponymous city to discuss these NTDs, which are both a cause and consequence of poverty. They aren't always fatal, but they often cause debilitating injuries, reduce life expectancies, and drain local economies and healthcare services that aren't equipped to deal with them.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the World Bank, several charities, state-run organizations, and a few governments all pitched in, and $785 million was initially raised to bring an end to 10 key NTDs – which at the time affected 2 billion people – by 2020. That figure is now $17 billion.
Inspired by a roadmap initially put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Uniting to Combat NTDs umbrella group has clearly made impressive inroads. As this new report underscores, enormous investments in research and development, treatment pathways, and even merely raising awareness of the crisis have had a huge impact in the last five years alone.
“All life has equal value,” Bill Gates told IFLScience back in April. He pointed out that for all 10 NTDs, “the trend is down. Less people are suffering from every single one of these diseases.”
Gates opined that this program represented “global health at its best,” and it’s hard to disagree with him – it’s easily one of the most extensive medical initiatives in human history.
It’s worth emphasizing that this isn’t just a charitable initiative. The progress report indicates that 1.8 billion treatments have been donated by the group’s industry partners – a new record – and that the most impoverished and poorly of those living in 150 different countries have received them.
This enormous collaborative endeavor between very different members of society has ultimately resulted in the 1 billion figure headlining the report. That’s roughly 14 percent of the global population – a truly staggering figure by any measure.
As with any project like this, unexpected hurdles mean that the 2020 target won’t be met, but they won’t be far off. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO, acknowledged this at the summit, saying that “the story of neglected tropical diseases is one of great progress and remaining challenges.”
This is echoed by Katey Owen, the Director of the NTD initiative at the BMGF.
“There is more work to be done,” she stresses. “We need increased support from a diverse network of donor and affected country governments, private philanthropy and other stakeholders to help us continue driving progress.”
In any case, as this work continues to accelerate – and all indications are that it will – it won’t be long before those key NTDs are consigned to history.