A Big World Win in the Fight against Neglected Tropical Diseases

by Noah Wekesa

By Solomon Mwaniki (WASH Project Officer) and Peter Waka (Programme Director, WASH, and NTDs), Amref Health Africa

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a diverse group of ancient communicable diseases that threaten 1.6 billion people living in the tropical, subtropical poorest and most marginalized communities worldwide, costing developing economies billions of dollars every year with devastating effects.

What sets NTDs apart from other diseases is the way they blind, disable or disfigure people, taking away not only their health but also their chances of staying in school, earning a living or even being accepted by their family or community. NTDs are characterized by far-reaching adverse and devastating effects that include physical and cognitive development impairment. They also contribute to mother and child illness and death, disenfranchising disabilities that affect mobility, self-confidence, social status through stigma and low esteem that makes it difficult or impossible to work or earn a living. This limits productivity in the workplace, presenting a high economic burden, high productivity losses and low economic development aggravated by the disabilities caused by NTDs.

Despite being a major public health issue, as well as being treatable and preventable, NTDs have in the past received very little funding and not as much attention as other communicable diseases. While over 85% of the global NTDs burden is in Africa, there has not been much involvement of African nations in advocating for increased investments and prioritisation of NTDs at the global level.

It is, therefore, a great win for Africa and the world at large that there is now a day set aside to raise awareness, garner support, and build momentum in the fight against NTDs. The world’s very first Neglected Tropical Diseases Day will be marked on 30 January 2020 under the theme “#BeatNTDs: For good. For all.

Announced at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum held in Abu Dhabi in November 2019, the World NTDs Day will be marked annually, bringing attention to the flight of 1.6 billion people affected by NTDs.

This creates an opportunity to prioritise multi-sector collaboration, integration and pooling of resources for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions and NTDs control to guarantee cost-effective, innovative and synergistic strategies if Kenya is to stand a fighting chance to beat NTDS for good, for all, particularly for the more than 25 million people infected by at least one NTD.

The provision of safe water, appropriate sanitation and hygiene largely contribute to the prevention and management of most NTDs. By supporting primary health care (PHC) efforts through sanitation behaviour change as well as access to and use of improved water and sanitation services particularly among women and children who are most vulnerable to NTDs, these diseases can be a thing of the past.

The World NTD day presents an opportunity to pursue and track progress towards the prioritisation, profile raising and increased funding to scale up NTDs at all levels, including innovative financing through public-private partnerships (PPPs). On the other hand, continued support by development organisations to the capacity building of the health workforce on diagnostics, integrated NTDs programming, vector ecology and management, preventive chemotherapy, surveillance, strategic planning, and effective advocacy so as to deliver quality NTD services remains paramount.

Opportunities to bolster efforts in the fight against NTDs exist in the application of multi-sectoral and multi-agency approaches to combat NTDs such as partnerships between public health agencies, water and education agencies to lead innovative WASH and NTDs services as a central element in the prevention, control, and elimination of NTDs at national and county levels. This will go a long way in scaling up wins such as Kenya’s recent certification as a guinea-worm disease-free country, delivered through partnerships with various entities including Amref Health Africa.

By using methods such as the four-pronged approach to detection, prevention and treatment of trachoma and other WASH-related NTDs adopted by Amref Health Africa to reach over 595,076 people annually with mass drugs administration (MDA) services to prevent diseases such as Trachoma, we can make steady progress in the fight against NTDs,

Through collaborative, comprehensive and integrated SAFE interventions, tremendous progress towards trachoma elimination achievement has been realized to meet the desired ultimate intervention goal as recommended by the WHO protocol guidelines of eliminating the disease as a public health concern by meeting the thresholds of below 5% on active trachoma and 0.2% for the blinding trachoma.

By seizing the opportunities presented by the establishment of the World NTDs Day, Kenya will be well on its way to attaining universal access and coverage of NTD interventions in tandem with the universal health coverage (UHC) spirit of leaving no one behind, and in line with the Ministry of Health’s National Breaking Transmission Strategy.

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