Though much of the world has never heard of diseases like lymphatic filariasis or schistosomiasis, these and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a daily reality for many living in Africa and across the world. These terrible diseases affect more than one billion people worldwide, disabling, disfiguring and blinding their victims, and making it difficult for the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s poorest communities to lift themselves out of poverty.
I have spent decades working to help combat these menacing diseases as a physician and official at the World Health Organisation (WHO), and I have been fortunate to witness increasing momentum from the global community to work together to control these NTDs.
But significant gaps remain todayÃ¢â‚¬â€we still need better treatments for certain NTDs, more treatments for others, and more effective ways to deliver existing drugs to those who need them.
Now there is more reason to hope that we may soon see a future free of these diseases. In London this week, global health organisations, bilateral donors, pharmaceutical companies, private foundations and representatives from NTD-endemic countries came together to undertake a robust, collaborative response to these challenges. They launched the largest coordinated effort to date to combat NTDs.
Working together, these organisations have created a real opportunity to help hundreds of millions of people affected by these terrible diseases build self-sufficiency. Their innovative partnership is changing how we approach global health problems and will increase the impact of previous NTD programmes, building on tremendous progress so far.
Thanks to the WHO Tropical Diseases Research ProgrammeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, a variety of tools have been developed to combat river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, leprosy, sleeping sickness and other diseases.
The new coordinated action announced this week will take these previous efforts to a whole new level. Together, these partners have pledged to increase the supply of existing drugs and invest and collaborate on research to accelerate the development of new and better drugs. Additionally, global health organisations will provide critical funding to support strengthening and improving delivery systems to ensure existing treatments are delivered to those who need them. Partners have signed onto the “London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases” Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a document that pledges enhanced levels of collaborative efforts to combat NTDs.
Building off the tradition of “pharmaco-philanthropy” set forth by past public-private partnerships on NTDs, a number of companies have pledged to provide for as many drugs as needed to protect people from these diseases. As such, many companies will extend their donation programmes to the end of the decade, and companies will provide a total 1.4 billion treatments on average each year. This follows in the footsteps of past drug donation programmes, such as Merck & Co. Inc.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s historical pledge in 1986 to donate “as much as is required for as long as it takes” of its drug to fight river blindness, as well as other programmes that successfully reduced cases of leprosy, river blindness and other diseases.
Innovative partnerships such as thisÃ¢â‚¬â€that partner the resources of private-sector players with those of public-sector health programmes, governments and aid organisationsÃ¢â‚¬â€have the potential to make immense progress against these diseases where individual efforts or bilateral partnerships are not enough.
To ensure these commitments make a public health impact, it is essential that NTD-endemic countries, like Malawi, work to ensure that the newly available medications can be effectively delivered to those who need them. These countries should also prioritise integrated, innovative NTDs programmes that combat multiple health challenges simultaneously.
Malawi and other African countries can build on the lessons learned in implementing the Mectizan Donation Programme. When the innovative, more efficient Community Directed Treatment with Ivermectin (CDTI) programme replaced traditional methods with health workers, more than 140 000 communities were empowered to take responsibility for collecting and distributing drugs to millions of people each year. This community approach has since been extended to distribute bed nets, Vitamin A, and other health-care practices.
I have spent decades fighting against neglected tropical diseases. In my 80 years, I have hoped to see a day when these neglected diseases will no longer blight the lives of the poor communities in Africa and worldwide. With this new innovative partnership, I see a light at the end of the tunnel.