WHO: ‘Unprecedented progress’ against neglected tropical diseases

Elderly couple with river blindness, in Tanzania. (Credit: Talea Miller, Online NewsHour/flickr)

World Health Organization officials said Tuesday that “unprecedented progress” had been made in reducing the spread of neglected tropical diseases in some of the world’s poorest communities.

The WHO’s fourth report on neglected tropical diseases was launched to coincide with a meeting today at the agency’s headquarters to assess current progress in the fight against the illnesses and to explore ways to move the process forward.

“WHO has observed record-breaking progress towards bringing ancient scourges like sleeping sickness and elephantiasis to their knees,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a statement. “Over the past 10 years, millions of people have been rescued from disability and poverty, thanks to one of the most effective global partnerships in modern public health”.

A man rests at the Guinea Worm case containment center 28, June 2014 Abobo Gambella Ethiopia. (UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ayene)

Among the most notable achievements is the elimination of trachoma – the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness – in Oman, Morocco and Mexico, as well as the near-eradication of a debilitating waterborne parasite known as Guinea-worm disease. In the Americas, only 25 rabies deaths were reported in 2015.

These are just a few of the 18 neglected tropical diseases the World Health Organization has selected as good targets to control and, in some cases, eradicate. These ancient diseases affect hundreds of millions of people in the poorest parts of the world, and the symptoms can be horrific – parasitic diseases like lymphatic filariasis cause people’s lower extremities to swell to monstrous sizes, or onchocerciasis (river blindness), in which the worm’s life cycle often includes destroying your eyeballs.

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But there are effective treatments for many neglected tropical diseases, which has allowed richer countries with better sanitation and health systems to effectively eliminate them. The WHO officials said more than 70 percent of countries and territories that report the presence of these illnesses are low- or lower-middle-income economies, where unsafe water, inadequate hygiene and sanitation, and poor housing conditions put some of the world’s poorest people at highest risk.

Much of the current progress in these countries is due to so-called mass drug administration programs, in which the entire population of an area is treated without first being tested for infection. According to the WHO’s report, an estimated 1 billion people received 1.5 billion treatments donated by pharmaceutical companies for one or more neglected tropical diseases in 2015 alone. More than half a billion people have received preventive treatment against elephantiasis – a worm disease that can cause very large swellings in the legs and genitals.

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In an interview with BBC News, Bill Gates praised pharmaceutical companies for “doing their part in a great relationship” by donating treatment at “a phenomenal scale.”

“None of these diseases are getting worse,” he said. “They are less neglected than they used to be.”

For some neglected tropical diseases, however, progress has been slower. Some lack effective and available drugs and diagnostic tools. Health officials have struggled to keep the spotlight on malaria, one of the leading causes of preventable death in the developing world. For these under-the-radar diseases, WHO officials said that there is a need for new combinations of drugs and innovative, faster-acting medicines with fewer side-effects.

“Further gains in the fight against neglected tropical diseases will depend on wider progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals,” Dirk Engels, director of the department of control of neglected tropical diseases, said in a statement.

WHO officials said further progress will depend on the ability to improve sanitation and water in the world’s poorest and remote regions. The agency estimates that 2.4 billion people still lack basic sanitation facilities such as toilets and latrines, while more than 660 million continue to drink water from “unimproved” sources, such as surface water.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com