On November 12, 2020, members of the World Health Organization (WHO) voted overwhelmingly to adopt a bold set of plans to address the threat of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) throughout the next decade. With this vote, the WHO endorsed a “road map” written by the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases team to address neglected tropical diseases in the world’s most vulnerable regions. The decade-long project aims to establish global programs with international partners, stakeholders and private organizations. These partnerships will work to accomplish an ambitious set of goals that will end the spread of certain neglected tropical diseases and improve the quality of human life in regions susceptible to neglected tropical diseases.
Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs)
Neglected tropical diseases are commonly defined by global health organizations such as the WHO and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as a group of diseases that primarily affect those living in tropical and subtropical climates and disproportionately spread in remote areas or regions afflicted by poverty. Among the 20 diseases that the WHO categorizes as neglected tropical diseases are dengue, rabies, leprosy, intestinal worm and sleeping sickness.
Tropical and subtropical regions include Central America and the northern half of South America in the Western Hemisphere, most of sub-Saharan Africa as well as island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Many of the countries in this range are developing or impoverished nations. A lack of development and healthcare infrastructure in nations that lie in tropical regions, such as lack of access to clean water and health education, creates a more fertile breeding ground for the spread of dangerous diseases.
The reason that these diseases are considered “neglected” is that regions where neglected tropical diseases cause the most damage are populated by people with little political power or voice, a result of widespread poverty, location and other socioeconomic factors. As such, the spread of these diseases goes largely unnoticed and there is little incentive at the international level to take measures to combat these ailments. Though NTDs do not receive high-profile attention in the larger medical community, the WHO estimates that more than one billion people are affected by NTDs. The WHO sees the urgency to address neglected tropical diseases.
WHO’s 2021-2030 Road Map
The WHO outlined a set of “overarching global targets” that it will pursue over the course of the next decade in work with foreign governments, community organizations and NGOs. These overarching goals, to be accomplished through achieving a number of “cross-cutting targets” are the primary effects the WHO hopes to achieve by 2030:
- Reduce number of people requiring treatment for NTDs by 90%. To attain a 90% reduction rate of those requiring treatment for neglected tropical diseases, the WHO altered its approach to disease treatment from a vertical, single disease eradication method to a horizontal, cooperative effort across several countries. This would require 100% access to water supply, greater international investment in healthcare and action at the federal level to collect and report data on infection.
- Eliminate at least one NTD in 100 countries. There are a number of neglected tropical diseases that the WHO lists as “targeted for elimination”: human African trypanosomiasis, leprosy and onchocerciasis. In the WHO’s road map, elimination of a disease means complete interruption of transmission, effectively stopping a disease’s spread. For eliminating diseases such as leprosy, the WHO hopes to assist 40 countries to adopt epidermal health strategies in their healthcare systems.
- Completely eradicate two NTDs. The two diseases listed as “targeted for eradication” by the WHO are yaws, a chronic skin condition, and dracunculiasis, an infection caused by parasitic worms in unclean water. Both diseases are, according to the WHO, either easily treatable or on the verge of eradication. Dracunculiasis, for which there is currently no vaccine or medical treatment, only affected a reported 54 people in 2019. Yaws is still endemic in 15 nations but can be treated with a single dose of antibiotics.
- Reduce by 75% the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) related to NTDs. The implementation of increased prevention, intervention and treatment can increase the quality of human life in tropical and subtropical countries. This final overarching goal aims to create nationwide efforts to alleviate or eliminate the chronic symptoms of those infected with neglected tropical diseases as well as prevent the further spread of debilitating neglected tropical diseases.
Ending Neglected Diseases
To address neglected tropical diseases, the fulfillment of the goals outlined in the WHO’s road map will require a multilateral and thorough implementation as well as cooperation and leadership from each of the partner countries affected. The WHO seeks to encourage each tropical and subtropical nation to take ownership of their healthcare programs, which will create a sustainable, international network to strengthen global health in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions. Putting the fight against neglected tropical diseases in the spotlight as well as dedicating time and resources to taking on these diseases, can remove the “neglected” from neglected tropical diseases and put the global community on a course toward eradicating these diseases.
– Kieran Graulich