Why it’s time to consign NTDs to the history books

GLIDE CEO Simon Bland on the need for greater collaboration in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of 21 debilitating conditions which disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in some of the hardest to reach places. Conditions such as lymphatic filariasis, Guinea worm, leprosy, and onchocerciasis (river blindness) blind, disfigure, and disable millions of people each year, keeping children out of school and parents out of work, costing countries billions of dollars in lost productivity.  

Many of NTDs - and the 1.6 billion people whose lives they affect - have been ignored for decades. This is due, in part, to a lack of incentives for research into new tools, diagnostics, and treatments thanks to insufficient funding and limited global attention.

The lack of attention and funding is despite most of these conditions being easily preventable and treatable, relative to other diseases such as heart disease, if only people would fund their elimination.

Thankfully, following recent events, eyes - and funders - are being drawn to the devastating health, social, and economic consequences of NTDs and the 170,000 preventable deaths each year that they cause.

January 30 marks the fourth World NTD Day, an initiative spearheaded by Reaching the Last Mile, the health philanthropy of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE. Since its launch in 2019, hundreds of partners signed up to mark World NTD Day and demand action to #BeatNTDs.

World NTD Day is an opportunity to raise awareness about the experiences of those affected by these diseases of poverty and the barriers to their elimination. It is also a time to reflect on some recent successes. Fifty countries worldwide have now eliminated at least one NTD, and 600 million fewer people require interventions than they did in 2010.

More than 15 billion treatments have been donated by pharmaceutical industry between 2012 and 2022, and just last year, Bangladesh eliminated lymphatic filariasis and Ghana eliminated sleeping sickness (Human African trypanosomiasis). 

Perhaps most notably, the horrific Guinea worm (Dracunculiasis), which  affected more than 3.5 million people in the 1980s, is now close to becoming only the second human disease after smallpox to be eliminated, with just 13 cases remaining, according to the latest figures.

The UAE has long led from the front on NTDs. The country’s first president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was one of the early funders of the Guinea worm programme launched by President Jimmy Carter after he left the White House.

His son, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the current president of the UAE, has picked up the baton through his support for Reaching the Last Mile (RLM), and my institution, the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE), which is based in Abu Dhabi.

“Only when we work together and at full capacity can we begin to eliminate NTDs and work towards consigning them – and the suffering they cause - to the history books.”

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ِA portrait of a man infected by river blindness taken by Nigerian photographer Omoregie Osakpolor as part of the Reframing Neglect exhibition. Photo: Omoregie Osakpolor

At COP28 in Dubai, RLM hosted a forum on the first-ever Health Day at a UN Climate Conference. The aim was to shine a light on infectious diseases like NTDs – and how climate change is exacerbating their spread – as well as the innovative work being done to advance their elimination.

At a special ceremony in the COP28 Blue Zone, and in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the RLM forum convened a high-level pledging moment, bringing together a diverse line-up of private, corporate and government funders who together committed more than US$777m to help prevent, control, and eliminate NTDs.

RLM pledged $100m to expand the Reaching the Last Mile Fund (RLMF), a pooled fund operated by the END Fund, a US-based nonprofit, to $500m. 

This will increase the reach of the programme from seven countries to 39 across Africa and Yemen, with the goal of eliminating two NTDs, lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis (river blindness), from the continent of Africa. 

Other pledgers included: the Gates Foundation; Sierra Leone; the Carter Center; Sightsavers; the Children’s Investment Foundation Fund (CIFF); The Helmsley Charitable Trust; the END Fund; and Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company.

The $780m will help finance essential programmes, support new research and innovations, and strengthen frontline health systems and workforces to be able to prevent and manage NTDs.

It will play a key role in helping to advance progress towards the targets set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which state that by 2030, at least 100 countries should eliminate at least one NTD, and the number of people requiring NTD treatment should be slashed by 90 percent.

The scale and diversity of the pledges made at COP28 during the RLM Forum was a milestone moment for public health globally and exemplifies the power of enduring partnerships across sectors, actors, and borders.

At a time when the world faces unprecedented challenges due to climate change and conflict, deep collaboration is indispensable to overcome obstacles.

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WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum, held in Dubai during COP28. Photo: UNFCC

A year earlier, at the Kigali Summit on Malaria and NTDs held in 2022, delegates - including governments, parliamentarians, private sector, philanthropists, and civil society - committed to a whole of society approach to achieve the WHO targets for NTDs. This means involving all sectors and actors and exploring opportunities for integrated interventions to deliver beneficial solutions.

GLIDE, for example, is currently supporting research into integrated and cross-border strategies on the border of Malawi-Mozambique and Ghana-Cote d’Ivoire to better address transmission of onchocerciasis. Additionally, we are supporting a study on the impacts of climate change on infectious diseases through our Falcon Awards for Disease Elimination.

The coming together of governments, philanthropists, NGOs, and the private to combat NTDs signifies a shared commitment to leaving no one behind.

At GLIDE, we believe that sustainable action for NTDs requires incentives for investment, action, and innovation; meaningful collaboration with partners, countries, and communities; and robust data for effective decision making.

While it is true that many diagnostics and medicines are provided pro-bono at scale by pharmaceutical and technology companies, it is also true that the incentives for research into newer tools remains inadequate. This slows innovation and risks progress stalling, or even in some cases reversing.

Only with continued attention and smart investment into fighting NTDs will we be able to achieve these global targets to improve and save lives. Everybody has a role to play. We can - and must – make NTDs a global health priority.

The slogan for this year’s World NTD Day is: Unite, Act, Eliminate. It is a strong message and a rallying call for action: we must come together and we must redouble our efforts.

Only when we work together and at full capacity can we begin to eliminate NTDs and work towards consigning them – and the suffering they cause - to the history books.