NTD Summit highlights progress made—and the challenges that remain.
|(L to R) Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Dr. Margaret Chan and Bill Gates attend the Global Partners Meeting in Geneva on April 19.|
The World Health Organization, Uniting to Combat NTDs and the Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) community hosted an NTD Summit in Geneva, Switzerland from April 19 to 22.
NTDs affect 1 billion people, many of them living in the poorest parts of the world. They are a cause of constant suffering and perpetuate a cycle of poverty and inequity.
The summit marked 10 years of multi-stakeholder collaboration, the fifth anniversary of the WHO’s roadmap on NTDs, which outlined targets for the control, elimination or eradication of 17 NTDs by 2020*, and the fifth anniversary of the London Declaration issued by partners in the fight to treat and prevent these diseases.
A WHO report released on the first day of the summit, Integrating Neglected Tropical Diseases in Global Health and Development, noted the impressive achievements made against NTDs including lymphatic filariasis and trachoma since 2007, thanks to political support, generous drug donations and improvements in living conditions.
But it also highlighted the need for further action, saying, “NTD programs continue to struggle with limited financial resources, inadequate capacity including capacity to implement effective surveillance, disruptive conflicts and important barriers to accessing needed health services that range from poverty to stigmatization.”
Renewed commitments were made to accelerate progress at a Global Partners Meeting on April 19, attended by some 400 people including health ministers, pharmaceutical industry executives, philanthropists and NGO heads. Among those attending was Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged US$335 million in grants over the next four years.
“Thanks to this partnership, these neglected diseases are now getting the attention they deserve so fewer people have to suffer from these treatable conditions,” Gates said. “There have been many successes in the past five years, but the job is not done yet.”
With advances against NTDs tied to progress toward achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals—which include “no poverty,” “zero hunger” and “clean water and sanitation”—Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, the deputy director-general of the WHO, noted that NTDs were symptoms of a bigger problem that needed to be addressed. Speaking of the one in six people who live with one or more NTD, he said, “In many cases, they are neglected by their own governments. They have no roads, no water, and no electricity. If all we do is take care of the symptoms—the diseases—and we do not advocate for good water, for good housing, good roads, then really we will not be helping them in the way we need to help them.”
There were two workshops on leprosy during the conference. “Leprosy: Putting the Person at the Center of Disease Control: Lessons for and from Leprosy” and “Leprosy, NTDs and Mental Health.”
Among the speakers, David Addiss of the Task Force for Global Health suggested that one of the successes of the leprosy community has been to see beyond the statistics to the individuals affected.
“In global health work, we necessarily focus on numbers, on macro interventions that have impact at population level, so we focus on numbers and less on faces. We focus on justice, but we don’t talk as much about compassion. We deal with human rights, less with relationships. We talk about policy rather than engaging in dialogue; ethical principles rather than the ethics of care. One of the things that the leprosy community brings to the NTD community is a fairer balance between the relational on the one side and the population on the other.”
Dr. Wim van Brakel of Netherlands Leprosy Relief said it was necessary to ensure that people didn’t disappear from view again once they were released from treatment. “It is important to recognize there are consequences that go beyond the disease period, and we have been struggling with that in leprosy.”
“People are deducted from the statistics as soon as they complete their treatment and then they become invisible. We need to find a way—and that could be done across NTDs—to make the case for visualizing all these people,” he said. “They all have faces, and there are a lot of them. They have mental health needs and other needs. If we could make them part of an official group that needs attention, that would be great.”
“In April 2017, partners from all over the world...came together in an unprecedented gathering to unite around the common goal of ending the suffering caused by NTDs. This effort is an essential stepping stone in the global movement towards an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for the planet and for present and future generations.” (From The Geneva Commitment)
* The WHO recognized an 18th NTD, mycetoma, in 2016.