By Lisa Rotondo, Director of ENVISION, USAID's flagship global NTD project implemented by RTI International, aiming to control and eliminate NTDs by the year 2020.
This year, the U.S. government marks 10 years of commitment to fighting neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). This is a success story that has largely flown under the radar when instead we should be heralding the progress we have made toward an ambitious vision of a world free from NTDs.
More than a billion people around the world are infected with at least one NTD and two billion more are at risk, but NTDs traditionally don’t grab headlines for a number of reasons. This group of parasitic and bacterial diseases affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, often cause disfigurement and disability rather than death, and have complicated, tongue-twisting names like schistosomiasis (also commonly known as bilharzia or snail fever), onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis).
A decade ago, the U.S. government chose not to neglect these diseases and the people they affect. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched arguably the largest public-private partnership in its history and one of the most underrated global development success stories of our time. It’s an effort backed by longstanding bipartisan leadership and support in Congress for foreign assistance, and specifically for global health.
In its 10-year history, USAID has supported the delivery of more than 1.6 billion treatments to prevent and treat seven highly prevalent NTDs across 25 countries. As a result, more than 140 million are no longer at risk for lymphatic filariasis, and we’re ambitiously aiming to control and eliminate these NTDs by 2020. To date, every $1 invested by USAID in NTDs leverages $26 in pharmaceutical donations for mass treatment campaigns, an attractive return on investment for any entrepreneur.
By leading the implementation of flagship USAID NTD projects since 2006, RTI International has been privileged to view progress against NTDs up close.
We work with Ministries of Health and Education to strengthen national NTD programs, in part by increasing the reach of mass treatment campaigns to all people at risk. It’s a complex effort that requires active leadership from local governments, close collaboration between USAID, the World Health Organization and non-governmental partners; visionary commitments from the pharmaceutical companies that donate safe and effective medicines; and the informed and active participation of communities at-risk.
Now, the NTD-fighting community stands at a crossroads: We must accelerate our work if we want to achieve ambitious control and elimination goals, while simultaneously building a strong foundation that will sustain success after 2020.
We must scale up to reach the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world with NTD medicines, but also with comprehensive approaches that connect health to overall development.
It’s about finding creative but safe ways to reach communities threatened by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon. It’s about areas in conflict and the people affected, like conducting surveys to determine how prevalent NTDs are in the refugee camps in Ethiopia. It’s about places where the health system is stretched to its utmost limit, like communities in rural Guinea overcoming an Ebola outbreak that shattered trust in a fragile health system.
The sustainability of NTD control also depends on our ability to coordinate with other development sectors. Progress against NTDs is intimately tied to progress against nearly every global development goal. For example, continued poor sanitation hampers efforts to control NTDs like schistosomiasis, and NTDs hobble advancement toward education goals as they prevent children from growing and learning. National NTD programs must therefore think beyond health, and coordinate with development colleagues in education and water. To be successful, this coordination must build local capacity, be data-driven, and be able to make the most of precious — but limited — resources.
We have built platforms that can now deploy a decade of experience and tools more effectively and further than ever before. The U.S. government’s bold bet 10 years ago to invest in NTDs — as well as our collective achievements as a community — is making a real impact in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
We can’t lose momentum now if, in another 10 years, we want to be singing the successes of a world free from NTDs.