Ending the (report) neglect of neglected tropical diseases


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Having lived in Washington, D.C., for years and having travelled to Geneva for work, I’m willing to guess that they rank as the two most report-happy cities of the world. It seems like every week, an NGO, think tank or governing body releases a new report with the latest findings or analysis of the health issue dujour. And as policy people, we dutifully digest these reports, hoping to apply the new, interesting nuggets of information in real time to our work.

So, it strikes me as the truest indicator that an issue has been unjustly overlooked when the WHO finally gets around to releasing a detailed report on an issue that’s been around for thousands of years. But that’s just what has happened for the issue of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which was blessed with its very own WHO report late last week—the first ever on the topic.

Sarcasm aside, the report draws a much-needed technical and policy spotlight to NTDs—diseases that debilitate, disfigure, blind and stigmatize more than a billion people around the world. Unlike AIDS, TB and malaria, NTDs are not notorious for killing people (though they do, just in smaller numbers), so their story seems a bit less “sell-able” to the average listener. It also doesn’t help that, although many are basic worm infections, they have tricky names like schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis that make many nervous to even say their names in public forums.

But NTDs’ effects cannot be underestimated or under-discussed in the policy world. What they do—in massive scale—is limit the intellectual, economic and productive capacity of the world’s poorest communities. Check out this table from the report that outlines some of the financial impacts of selected NTDs—something to which we should be paying more attention in these tough economic times:


Still, the NTD story is an exciting one, because it costs just 50 cents per year to treat an individual for the seven most common NTDs. The new report notes that more than 670 million people have received integrated treatment, thanks in part to unprecedented drug donations from major pharmaceutical companies including GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Merck that allow the drugs to be so cheap. One NTD, guinea worm, is close to eradication, and many others are rapidly on the decline thanks to improvements in R&D, surveillance, treatment and political commitment.

It is my hope, as a former NTD advocate at the Global Network, that this report will do more than just eat up paper and ink in office printers around DC and Geneva; that it will motivate policy makers to pay attention to these awful diseases and feel empowered to do more to ensure their control.


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