Funding Shortage Imperils Africa’s Fight Against Neglected Tropical Diseases, Warns WHO
Health specialists have issued warnings regarding the ongoing underinvestment, highlighting the potential jeopardy it poses to efforts aimed at controlling and eradicating neglected tropical diseases.
During a meeting of healthcare professionals and contributors at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa, a resounding call was made for heightened financial commitments to combat these overlooked ailments.
It was understood that these illnesses cast a shadow over the lives of almost 400 million people in the region.
According to a survey conducted in 2022 by the Expanded Special Project for the Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases, a WHO initiative, approximately 99 million people across 26 African nations face the risk of being deprived of essential treatment for these diseases.
Neglected tropical diseases, as categorized by the WHO, comprise a group of 20 diseases or disease groups that predominantly afflict tropical and subtropical regions. These include conditions such as lymphatic filariasis, more commonly referred to as elephantiasis, onchocerciasis or river blindness, schistosomiasis or bilharzia, human African trypanosomiasis, often referred to as sleeping sickness, as well as chronic ulcers and various skin infections.
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The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) reports that neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) encompass a cluster of persistent, incapacitating infections that affect over one billion people globally. This burden is particularly pronounced in Africa, primarily affecting people living in remote rural areas, urban slums, or conflict-ridden zones.
Neglected tropical diseases extend their detrimental effects beyond mere health issues, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and social stigma that renders individuals incapable of working, attending school, or fully engaging in family and community activities.
The Regional Director for Africa at the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, emphasized the devastating consequences of these diseases, which include severe pain, disabilities, deformities, malnutrition, stunted growth, and cognitive impairments. Some NTDs, such as those causing anemia, directly contribute to maternal mortality.
Despite the formidable challenges, Africa has made substantial strides in its battle against neglected tropical diseases.
Leprosy has nearly reached the status of being eliminated as a public health concern, with only Comoros still working towards achieving the elimination goal on one of its three islands.
A significant milestone has been achieved, with 42 African countries being officially certified as free of the Guinea worm. Additionally, six nations in the African region have successfully eliminated trachoma as a public health problem.
In a groundbreaking achievement in 2022, Togo became the first African country to eliminate four neglected tropical diseases, marking a remarkable success in the battle against these debilitating illnesses.
“Africa has made great strides against neglected tropical diseases, with millions of people now living free of the pain and suffering caused by these illnesses,” Dr. Moeti said.
“But to secure and build upon these gains, further investments, including adequate, predictable, and sustained funding, are crucial to speeding up the pace towards ending these diseases.”
The economic toll of neglected tropical diseases exacts a heavy burden on affected families. It is estimated that household income lost due to out-of-pocket health expenses and wages forgone because of these diseases amounts to a staggering minimum of US$33 billion annually.
Prevention and treatment of neglected tropical diseases represent highly advantageous public health investments, with an estimated net benefit to afflicted people amounting to approximately US$ 25 for every US%1 invested.
Dr. Moeti underscores that initiatives to combat these diseases have far-reaching positive consequences within communities. These include improved access to education, enhanced health outcomes, and increased employment opportunities.
Furthermore, many measures for controlling neglected tropical diseases rely on straightforward interventions that can be administered by non-specialists, thereby making community-based delivery feasible and effective.
The WHO Global Neglected Tropical Diseases Roadmap for the period 2021–2030 is designed to achieve ambitious goals. It aims to reduce the number of people requiring treatment for these diseases by 90% and decrease the associated disability by 75%.
This roadmap, which has received endorsement through the African Regional Framework for the Control, Eradication, and Elimination of Tropical and Vector-Borne Diseases, stresses the importance of government leadership and commitment. It encourages governments to actively pursue the attainment of both global and national targets in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.