Why this Vatican conference is focusing on rare diseases and neglected tropical diseases
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Why this Vatican conference is focusing on rare diseases and neglected tropical diseases

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By Emily Conron, Sabin Vaccine Institute

Three and a half years ago, the fight against extreme poverty gained a unique and spirited champion: Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics. From his pulpit in Rome to his off-the-cuff press conferences aboard the papal plane to his moving written treatises, Francis has consistently delivered strong messages urging the world to combat inequality and injustice at their roots. This past Saturday, at an exciting event in Vatican City, he drew attention to one such driver of poverty: neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

pope_francis_in_march_2013

Pope Francis in March 2013. (Photo credit: Casa Rosada/Wikimedia Commons)

The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, the body charged with overseeing the healthcare activities of the Catholic Church around the globe, hosted an International Conference focused on NTDs and rare diseases at the Vatican from November 10-12. This unique gathering brought together more than 300 scientific experts and leaders from more than 50 countries to discuss how the Catholic Church – estimated to be the largest non-governmental provider of health care services in the world through its vast network of hospitals and clinics – can contribute to the effort to combat these health issues which take such a toll on the poor and marginalized.

NTDs are some of the most common afflictions of people living in extreme poverty. One in six people worldwide is infected with at least one of the 18 diseases the World Health Organization classifies as NTDs, ranging from intestinal worms to river blindness to lymphatic filariasis (commonly known as elephantiasis), and the most common can be treated or prevented. Some of these diseases are on track to be eliminated in the next decade. Others will require new tools like vaccines. But there is one thing all NTDs have in common: they thrive in conditions of extreme poverty and perpetuate its cycle by keeping children from school and adults from work.

The fight against NTDs has gained momentum over the last decade. As NTD treatment and prevention programs in many countries have scaled up, the prevalence of some NTDs has dropped dramatically. For instance, four Latin American countries have eliminated river blindness in as many years, leaving only a few communities in a remote region of the Amazon rainforest on the border of Venezuela and Brazil at risk of the disease. And a network of African countries has reduced new cases of human African trypanosomiasis by 90% since 2000.

Trypanosoma forms in a blood smear from a patient with African trypanosomiasis. (Photo credit: CDC/Wikimedia Commons)

Trypanosoma forms in a blood smear from a patient with African trypanosomiasis. (Photo credit: CDC/Wikimedia Commons)

But for progress against NTDs to advance equally across all diseases in all regions where they are found, increased resources and strengthened commitment is needed. With networks spanning the globe and strong partnerships at the community and country level, faith-based partners could provide a pivotal push over the next decade of this historic effort and urge countries to do more.

The global effort to control and eliminate NTDs is already closely aligned with the social mission of the Catholic Church and the witness of Pope Francis. Three key principles of the Church’s social teaching – the life and dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and the commitment to the common good – are also key precepts of the global effort to fight NTDs. Pope Francis reflected on these connections in his speech to the conference .

The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that every human person has the right to a life consistent with their inherent dignity. Yet even today, one in six people suffer from diseases that debilitate, causing immense physical suffering, and disfigure, stigmatizing those infected and their families. With safe, effective medicines available for the most common NTDs, this is an affront to human dignity that has no place in modern society.

From this belief in the dignity of each person comes our shared commitment to caring for the poor and vulnerable. If we are committed to the principle that all lives have equal value, we know some members of society need particular care and attention if they are to live in dignity – among them, the poor, the sick, and people with disabilities. The global community must make a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable by expanding access to NTD treatment programs and prevention efforts.

The final unifying principle is solidarity – the commitment to the common good, which demands that we acknowledge the suffering of others and take action to alleviate it. Solidarity is the antidote to what Pope Francis has termed the “globalization of indifference,” the modern phenomenon whereby we are “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” One fundamental step we can take to overcome this “globalization of indifference” is to come together in support of the fight against NTDs as an expression of real solidarity with people living in extreme poverty.

The reflections shared at the conference by Catholic leaders including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, and Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, offered reason for hope that such partnerships might be possible.

Pope Francis’ message to the conference highlighted how the complexity of the challenge of NTDs requires a complex response: “The challenge, from an epidemiological, scientific, clinical/care, hygienic, and economic point of view is, therefore, enormous because it involves responsibilities and commitments on a global scale: international and national health-care and political authorities, health-care workers, the biomedical industry, associations of citizens/patients, and lay and religious volunteers. This is an enormous challenge, but not an impossible one.”

He concluded with a vision for the Church’s role in this effort: “It remains a priority of the Church to keep herself dynamically in a state of ‘moving outwards,’ to bear witness at a concrete level to divine mercy, making herself a ‘field hospital’ for marginalized people who live in every existential, socio-economic, health-care, environmental, and geographical fringe of the world.”

It will be up to faith leaders and people of faith to respond to this call in their own way in their own communities. As Pope Francis put it in his speech to the United States Congress last September, “How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost.” The fight against NTDs must be animated by a “spirit of global solidarity” – which faith-based partners are primed to provide.

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