In our lifetime, these diseases that have been plagues of humankind since antiquity can become but a memory.
This article was originally published to The Huffington Post, as part HuffPost’s Project Zero campaign, a yearlong series on neglected tropical diseases and efforts to eliminate them. This series is supported, in part, by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the foundation.
Neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs, take an enormous toll on the more than 1 billion people they afflict. Left untreated, these infections can lead to blindness, impaired cognitive development, decreased mobility, debilitating stigma, and even death. However, since the London Declaration on NTDs was signed in 2012, global partners have made much progress in reducing the burden of these diseases on people around the world.
These efforts include determining where people are at risk, who is infected, what treatments can be offered, and how to ensure that these diseases don’t come back after they are eliminated. We at The Task Force for Global Health are proud to be among those partners and to celebrate the successes of these collaborations, even as we continue to work harder to sustain our gains.
Success stories: in 2016 alone, more than 120 million doses of the antibiotic azithromycin were delivered to programs working to eliminate trachoma. That milestone represents a multilateral undertaking, involving ministries of health, the International Trachoma Initiative, and Pfizer working together to meet countries’ needs for medicine. That energy has helped three countries – Mexico, Morocco, and Oman – to be validated by the World Health Organization as having eliminated the disease as a public health problem, and six more countries to report achieving elimination targets.
Similarly, Latin America is now almost entirely free from onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, after Guatemala joined Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia, in eliminating the disease. This success was due in part to the contributions of the The Mectizan Donation Program at The Task Force, which manages Merck’s donation of the parasitic drug ivermectin. Last year alone in Africa, 280 million Mectizan treatments were distributed for the elimination of river blindness. In total, more than 100 million people in Africa have been treated for onchocerciasis.
But these partnerships go beyond distributing medicines. Children Without Worms, a program of The Task Force, advocates for holistic efforts to control soil- transmitted helminthiases (intestinal worms), incorporating surveys to measure the worm burden and best practices in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). With the input of global partners, the organization supports affected countries’ deworming programs through technical innovations, which strengthen the country’s capacity to plan their disease control programs more efficiently and with quality data. The results of this collaboration are illustrated in Bangladesh, whose ministry of health recently announced major policy changes to extend deworming to secondary school children.
The fair market value of the drugs delivered through Task Force programs makes us the second-largest nonprofit organization in the United States, according to Forbes. The availability of effective medicines make NTDs a solvable scourge. However, we prefer to see ourselves differently, recognizing that all work we do is conducted in collaboration with hundreds of partners – from the leadership of implementing organizations overseeing mass drug administrations to the community volunteers who distribute medicines.
We believe collaboration is critical to solving large-scale health problems, a sentiment that was echoed at the most recent meeting of the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases, for which the NTD Support Center at The Task Force serves as secretariat. There, in a keynote address, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called on researchers, program implementers, donors and policy-makers to work together more closely on NTD elimination. “Every step has to be collaborative,” he said. “You must have cooperation in order to be successful. We must recognize the value of partnerships. And sometimes that’s not easy to do for a proud organization that wants to get credit for all the progress made.”
Whatever pride we take in our organizations, we take infinitely more pride in the collective accomplishments of the partners who are working to end NTDs. Whether nearing Guinea Worm eradication or pioneering vaccines for dengue virus, these successes deserve recognition and praise.
Most importantly, however, the credit for NTD elimination belongs to the countries and communities in which these diseases continue to pose public health threats. In our lifetimes – with continued commitment from all involved – these diseases that have been plagues of humankind since antiquity will become but a memory. And when they are gone, each successive generation will have opportunities for healthy, productive lives.
PHOTO: A young boy takes antibiotic medication for trachoma (BILLY WEEKS FOR THE TASK FORCE FOR GLOBAL HEALTH)