The COVID-19 pandemic has meant pausing NTD treatments worldwide. When the pandemic broke, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised that NTD activities, including community-based surveys, active case-finding and mass treatment campaigns, should be ‘postponed until further notice’. Hence, the UK Department of International Development (DFID) offered the organisations it works with the chance to adapt their programmes to respond to these exceptional circumstances.
This means certain aspects of the Ascend West and Central Africa programme (2019-2022) have needed to be adapted. The programme, funded by DFID, aims to make major progress towards eliminating five painful NTDs in 13 countries by, among other things, delivering more than 300 million treatments. It is made up of a consortium of partners including Sightsavers, Mott MacDonald, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative Foundation (SCI) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM).
The programme consortium embraced the opportunity to use its years of combined expertise to help tackle this humanitarian challenge through adapting NTD interventions that are proven to be an effective way of reaching the most in need with delivery of large-scale, cross-national impacts at low cost.
The Ascend West and Central Africa programme aims to distribute more than 300 million treatments in 13 countries to treat neglected tropical diseases.About the programme
The consortium lost no time in submitting proposals to DFID outlining how it could utilise the programme’s expertise and capability, known as ‘flexing’, to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic. To do this, we worked with ministries of health, national task forces and partners to prepare a plan for each country and were able to deliver proposals in just 10 days.
We are proud that the main activities Ascend West and Central Africa is, and will be, supporting include:
As anticipated, there are still some areas of concern we are dealing with.
For instance, reports from the WHO and other UN agencies have shown that people with disabilities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, not only because of increased risk for those with existing health conditions, but also because of discrimination in the health, social and economic crisis responses. We have made sure the Ascend West and Central Africa programme is including people with disabilities in its design, delivery and evaluation.
We also do not know yet what the full impact COVID-19 will have on Ascend West and Central Africa’s drug supply chain. Issues are already emerging in drug manufacturing and delivery as options are restricted. Plus, drugs that are already in country but are not being used due to paused programmes, are at risk of expiring.
Encouragingly, the programme has already begun to prepare for when safe mass drug administration can resume. However, it is unlikely that these mass treatment campaigns will look the same. The Ascend West and Central Africa programme is fully engaged with the WHO, governments and partners in outlining how to restart these activities whilst ensuring social distancing measures.
To this end, Sightsavers, in close collaboration with governments, partners and donors, developed a ‘resume activity matrix’ risk assessment tool. This ensures decisions made to resume NTD work outweigh the risk of spreading COVID-19 in targeted areas. This risk assessment also factors in the health system’s capacity to effectively conduct safe and high-quality health interventions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.