UAE institute to boost global fight against tropical diseases

Abu Dhabi-based centre will support research and build new capacity in the battle to eliminate polio, malaria and diseases of poverty

A new UAE-based health institute is seeking to globalise expertise on disease elimination strategies in order to end the suffering and stigma associated with debilitating conditions such as river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

The Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE) which is funded by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is the latest commitment by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to eliminate polio, malaria and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which affect over 1.7 billion people worldwide

Among them is lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, which causes painful and visible disfigurations, including enlarged limbs, and can lead to permanent disability.

River blindness, or onchocerciasis, is an eye and skin disease caused by a parasitic worm and transmitted through bites from infected blackflies.

The conditions disable, disfigure and sometimes kill, keeping children out of school, adults out of work and trapping communities in cycles of poverty.

In 2017, in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Crown Prince announced the formation of a groundbreaking $100m initiative to target NTDs in seven countries over 10 years.

The multi-donor Reaching the Last Mile Fund (RLMF) is administered by the END Fund, a US-based nonprofit. The fund provides money for local governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and, in partnership with pharmaceutical companies, is working to eliminate river blindness and lymphatic filariasis in Mali, Senegal, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen.

Although there will be some cross-over between the focus of GLIDE and that of the RLMF, they are distinct projects and GLIDE has its own start-up funding pot of $20m and its own strategies.

From its Abu Dhabi headquarters, the new institute will advocate on and raise awareness around NTDs, support elimination strategies at a technical level and bring together leading international organisations and local on-the-ground experts.

“We're trying to globalise global health,” Simon Bland, GLIDE’s recently appointed chief executive told Philanthropy Age. “We don't want global health to be just focused in Geneva, London, Atlanta, New York or Seattle. Abu Dhabi can play a strong and meaningful role and we are focusing on that last mile of disease elimination.”

“What we really want to do is alleviate the suffering,” explained Bland. “If you listen to the personal accounts of people living with lymphatic filariasis, for example, there is a lot of stigma and discrimination, incredible pain, and in many cases a total loss of the ability to live a productive life.”

Bland, a development economist and the former head UNAIDS, the United Nations’ Aids body, described lymphatic filariasis and river blindness as “ancient diseases of poverty”.

“We wouldn’t tolerate them in Manhattan or Surrey, so we shouldn’t tolerate them in Africa,” he said. “A lot of people in the past have just lived with these terrible diseases, not knowing the causes and not appreciating that we can beat them, once and for all.”

The initiative comes at a pivotal moment in the fight against NTDs as countries work towards the adoption of a new 2030 roadmap, due to be signed off at a high-level summit on the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place in the Rwandan capital Kigali in June.

“We'll play a convening role, a learning role and a knowledge generation role,” explained Bland, a former board chair of the Global Fund. “We do not envisage ourselves as a large financing institute, rather we’ll look to support operational research and activities that accelerate progress and facilitate lesson learning.”

He added: “The key will be listening to the local perspective and taking our lead from them. We are not going to be a top-down force, imposing ideas or strategies, we are there to enable and complement existing expertise.”

GLIDE’s first programmes – which at the time of writing were still waiting for board sign-off - are likely to include giving strategic and technical support to assist an African government get its river blindness elimination programme back on track, as well as plugging gaps in data, especially in hard-to-reach or border areas.

There is also a plan to look at how the successful elimination of river blindness from four countries in the Americas could offer useful lessons for African states, and the possibility of giving  support for anti-malaria programmes in the Sahel region of Africa.

Technical assistance would be provided in the form of support for design and costing of elimination strategies, help with surveillance and data analysis, and a focus on creating supply chain efficiencies and economies of scale. GLIDE is also keen to find ways to integrate support across different disease response programmes and strengthen overall health systems.

There will also be a focus on advocacy around NTDs - through the lobbying for clearer global guidelines and helping communities better understand and manage their response to these diseases – and opportunities to support research fellows.

“We want to find a way to support capacity building,” Bland explained. “There are a lot of NTD specialists out there, a lot of people that have been running programs for decades, and we actually have a lot to learn from them.”

Bland stressed there were no immediate plans to carry out research and development (in Abu Dhabi, though he said he would love the institute to have that capability one day in the future.

“We’re not a boots-on-the-ground type of implementing organisation and we’re not out there looking for new molecules or therapies,” he told PA. “The barriers to entry and the risks of failure are just too high and quite frankly not our game. We will be an important mid-stream organisation with advocacy, operational research and some delivery innovation.

“There aren’t many quick wins in this space. I don't think there's a lot of low hanging fruit. This is difficult stuff,” he added. “But I do think there are clear entry points where we can be involved, and we can make a difference. I think this is just an incredible opportunity.”