The World Health Organisation (WHO) published its first annual update on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) last week. Following on from the recognition the 2010 report gained for the plight of NTDs, this recent delve into the revised facts and figures makes for optimistic reading.
Since 2005 the pace of research on NTDs has escalated over 30-fold with 161 papers being published on the topic in 2010. Subsequently news coverage has grown from seven stories worldwide in 2005 to 209 in 2010. This awareness within the general public has intensified efforts from pharmaceutical companies and governments to develop and provide billions of free drugs to the poorest nations on earth.
The trends from the mishmash of data available point towards a far greater number of people getting access to the treatments they need and a decline in cases brought forward.
The term neglected tropical disease was coined in 2005 by WHO to raise awareness for 17 of the world’s most harmful and overlooked diseases affecting the poorest people in the most deprived locations. Stigmatised in the countries in which they are endemic and ignored elsewhere in the world they are generally the preserve of developing countries that do not have the available income to afford adequate treatments and research. Dr Lorenzo Savioli, Director of Control of NTDs at WHO, is confident that “the burden of many of these diseases will be substantially reduced or eliminated by 2020”.
By declaring NTDs surmountable, WHO has encouraged donations for the cause. Unlike the vaccine status for AIDs or malaria, which creeps gradually forwards in a war of attrition, the end is in sight for the majority of NTDs.
The challenge is not easy. WHO can afford to be confident because 90% of NTDs require a dose of medicine once or twice a year to relieve their burden. Most of the diseases already have effective interventions but the logistics for distributing them need funding and organisation. The latest figures in the 2011 report point towards that final goal in nine years time.
Elimination, as defined by WHO, does not mean the disease is gone for good. A country can declare itself leprosy free, as indeed India did in 2005, when there are fewer than one in 10,000 cases. In a country of 1.2 billion that still leaves 126,800 people afflicted with leprosy with fewer resources available for their treatment.
With enough resources from institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the real challenge for NTDs is going to lie post 2020. Maintaining support for the remaining few still suffering from “eradicated” diseases and avoiding a resurging epidemic will require dedication.