Fight against tropical diseases at tipping point

Some 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from one or more neglected tropical diseases, with Africa and low-income regions worst affected

A leading funder of the fight against trachoma, guinea worm and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) has said NTDs could be eradicated by 2030 with timely investments from private donors.

More than 800 million people afflicted by NTDs were reached by healthcare agencies in 2014, but more funds are needed to meet the costs of getting essential drugs to the community health workers who go door-to-door to deliver them, the US-based The END Fund said.

“For every $1 that is invested from private philanthropy, you access more than $10 worth of donated medicines,” said Ellen Agler, CEO, The END Fund. “We’ve come so far with the current partners and a collaborative approach. But we probably won’t get to the end game by 2030 unless more people join the NTD cause.”

Some 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from one or more of these parasitic and bacterial diseases, with those in Africa and other low-income regions among the worst affected. Almost half of the victims are children.

Last year saw Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, the World Bank and other donors pledge a $240m injection of new funding to tackle neglected diseases. The money followed a large-scale deal by 13 drugmakers in 2012 to donate medicines to help wipe out these diseases.

A study from April last year found an extra $1.4bn is needed over seven years to reduce the burden of NTDs, or $200m a year.

In their annual letter last week, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates predicted that by 2030, the world would see the end of conditions such as elephantiasis, river blindness and trachoma.

“We’re reaching an incredible moment in history for NTDs,” Agler told Philanthropy Age. “A letter like [this] is an invitation to many more people to join the cause.”

NTDs are caused by parasites and bacterial infections spread through unclean water and poor sanitation. The diseases cause severe pain, malnutrition and stunting, which can lead to long-term disability and take a significant toll on economic output. The three most affected countries are Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“A lot of people just live and grow up with these diseases. If you’re poor and you don’t have access to water and sanitation, you’ll likely grow up with intestinal worms or schistosomiasis,” said Agler. “They think it is just a symptom of childhood.”

In January, US-based foundation The Carter Center announced there were just 126 cases of guinea worm worldwide in 2014, a 15 per cent fall on the previous year.

Former US President Jimmy Carter said eradication of the waterborne disease “is very possible in the next few years”.

The END Fund works in the GCC with private philanthropists and foundations such as Dubai Cares. The organisation treated 50 million people in 15 countries last year, concentrating on five NTDs: intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, trachoma and river blindness.

Photo credit: The END Fund