Last week the spotlight was shone firmly on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The week kicked off with an announcement by UK Aid that it was funding NTD programmes to the tune of £360 million.
Particularly exciting for Sightsavers was the fact the announcement highlighted £205 million of new support from 2017/2018 to 2021/2022.
The Department for International Development (DFID) also specifically mentioned that money would be used prevent up to 400,000 cases of blindness caused by trachoma, and prevent tens of thousands of cases of disability caused by lymphatic filariasis.
The world’s richest man, philanthropist Bill Gates, came to town advocating for governments to continue funding programmes to eliminate disease, in particular shining the spotlight on the UK government to protect the 0.7 per cent aid budget. This was swiftly followed by the announcement of a UK election. The World Health Organization highlighted NTD progress in a report entitled ‘Integrating neglected tropical diseases in global health and development’, which headlined the fact that a billion people received treatment in 2015. Sightsavers supported the delivery of 141 million of these treatments.
All of this is fantastic, especially for someone such as me who has been working in NTDs for the past 17 years – they weren’t even called ‘NTDs’ when I first became involved with river blindness and trachoma programmes in west Africa. I welcome any new funding, continued donor support and results that show the progress of the amazing work that I know is happening to eliminate these diseases from the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
Recently, for example, Sightsavers’ Sudan country office and our partner, the Ministry of Health, carried out the first mass drug administration programme for trachoma in the states that make up Darfur. After years of conflict, stability meant that teams of health workers were able to not only carry out mapping for the infectious eye disease, but also implement targeted treatment. In a year, more than 300 trained volunteers have reached 1.9 million people for the first time, which for me is a great example of universal health coverage at its best.
To put it another way, it shows how strengthening horizontal health systems can deliver accelerated and cost-effective primary care. I believe, like many others working on NTDs, that the only way to achieve universal health coverage, reach ambitious NTD elimination targets and truly ‘leave no one behind’ is to strengthen healthcare systems at community level.
I was offered the opportunity to address the assortment of NTD healthcare professionals, government representatives, donors and NGOs at the NTD Summit in Geneva. I took the opportunity to address this very topic, highlighting some of the things we are doing so effectively on a daily basis and need to continue to do.
By working on governance and leadership, through supporting effective partnerships and working together to deliver integrated delivery of NTDs and post-treatment surveillance, alongside other public healthcare interventions such as WASH, we will be able to eliminate NTDs.
Second, we need to invest in human resources. By having well-trained and motivated health workers and volunteers, who are the backbone of NTD programme delivery, we contribute to the goal of providing universal health care and strengthening healthcare systems at community and school level. Human resource investment and capacity-building in areas such as logistics and management is also essential and often underestimated.
Finally, it’s essential to manage and, where possible, streamline drug supply chains to ensure the medicines reach the areas where they are needed. Sightsavers, for example, has managed a large and very successful integrated mass drug administration (MDA) programme in Nigeria, and the new systems developed are now being used country-wide. We also need better technology with more use of mHealth data, such as the project being piloted in Nigeria to collect treatment data on mobile phones, so we know who has had the drug and when.
There is no doubt that this year has heralded some astounding progress towards eliminating NTDs. Sightsavers, along with its partners, will have its own milestones coming up at the end of year: a celebration of trachoma elimination in Ghana and recording-breaking treatment numbers. But we are not at the point where we have met the 2020 and 2025 targets and have some distance to go, so let’s not give up the fight to eliminate these diseases from the world just yet. Despite NTDs having been in the spotlight so positively last week, let’s not forget that the journey is far from over.