Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) are a diverse group of ancient communicable diseases that threaten 1.6 billion people in the tropical and subtropical poorest and most marginalised communities, costing the developing economies billions of dollars every year.
What sets NTDs apart from other diseases is the way they blind, disable or disfigure people, taking away not only their health but also chances of staying in school, earning a living or even being accepted by their family or community. NTDs are characterised by far-reaching adverse and devastating effects that include physical and cognitive development impairment.
They also contribute to mother and child illness and death, disenfranchising disabilities that affect mobility, self-confidence, social status through stigma and low esteem, making it difficult or impossible to earn a living. This limits productivity in the workplace, presenting a high economic burden, high productivity losses and low economic development aggravated by the disabilities.
Despite being a major public health issue, and though treatable and preventable, NTDs have in the past received very little funding and less attention as other communicable diseases. While 85 per cent of the NTDs burden is in Africa, there has been little involvement of African nations in advocating their prioritisation at the global level.
It is, therefore, a great win for the world that there is now a day to raise awareness, garner support and build momentum in the fight against NTDs. The inaugural annual Neglected Tropical Diseases Day is being marked today under the theme “#BeatNTDs: For good. For all”.
Announced at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum, held in Abu Dhabi last November, it is an opportunity to prioritise multi-sector collaboration, integration and pooling of resources for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions and NTDs control. This will guarantee cost-effective, innovative and synergistic strategies if Kenya is to stand a fighting chance to beat NTDS, particularly for the over 25 million people infected by at least one of the diseases.
prevention and management
Provision of safe water, appropriate sanitation and hygiene largely contributes to the prevention and management of most NTDs. By supporting primary healthcare (PHC) efforts through sanitation behaviour change as well as access to, and use of, improved water and sanitation services, particularly among women and children, who are most vulnerable to NTDs, these diseases can be eliminated.
The day is an opportunity to pursue and track progress towards the prioritisation, profile raising and increased funding to scale up NTDs at all levels, including innovative financing through public-private partnerships (PPPs).
On the other hand, continued support by development organisations to the capacity building of the health workforce on diagnostics, integrated NTDs programming, vector ecology and management, preventive chemotherapy, surveillance, strategic planning and effective advocacy so as to deliver quality NTD services is paramount.
Opportunities to bolster efforts in the fight against NTDs exist in the application of multi-sectoral and multi-agency approaches to combat the diseases — such as partnerships between public health agencies, water and education agencies to lead innovative WASH and NTDs services as a central element in the prevention, control and elimination of NTDs. This will go a long way in scaling up wins such as Kenya’s recent certification as a guinea worm disease-free country, delivered through partnerships with various entities, including Amref Health Africa.
By using methods such as the four-pronged approach to detection, prevention and treatment of trachoma and other WASH-related NTDs adopted by Amref Health Africa to reach over 595,076 people annually with mass drug administration (MDA) services to prevent diseases such as trachoma, we can make steady progress in the war on NTDs.
By seizing the opportunities presented by the World NTDs Day, Kenya will be well on its way to attaining universal access and coverage of NTD interventions in tandem with the universal health coverage (UHC) spirit of leaving no one behind, and in line with the Ministry of Health’s National Breaking Transmission Strategy.
Mr Waka is programme director, WASH and NTDs, Amref Health Africa. Mr Mwaniki is WASH Project Officer, Amref Health Africa.