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In their annual letter, this year entitled Our Big Bet for the Future, the couple predicts that we’ll “see the last of diseases like elephantiasis, river blindness, and blinding trachoma, which disable tens of millions of people in poor countries”. They add that the treatments for these diseases are now being used more strategically, “thanks to advances in digital maps that show where diseases are most prevalent”.
The announcement brings much-needed attention to the work being done to eliminate the group of diseases known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which has been a primary focus for Sightsavers over the past 60 years.
Diseases such as trachoma and river blindness are some of the world’s leading causes of avoidable blindness. Trachoma is a highly contagious and easily treatable eye infection which, with repeated infections, causes scarring to eyelids that turns them inwards, making lashes scrape the cornea with every blink, causing great pain and, if not treated, eventually leading to permanent blindness. River blindness (onchocerciasis) is spread by flies that breed near fast-flowing water. A fly bite passes worm larvae into the skin; the death of the larvae causes itching and lesions which can lead to blindness and disfigurement.
Sightsavers is currently leading on ambitious disease elimination projects to see the end of trachoma and river blindness, and we’re heading up the Global Trachoma Mapping Project. This is an incredibly ambitious undertaking – in fact, it’s the largest global disease mapping effort in history. It uses innovative technology to map areas where diseases are most prevalent, so that treatment can be effectively targeted to the areas with the greatest need.
As well as predicting an end to the diseases mentioned in their letter, the Gates’ emphasise the need for people to get involved with issues of global importance, and encourage them to be “informed, passionate individuals. People who care about helping those in the world’s poorest places improve their lives.” They finish by stating: “…we believe that people can work together to make the world a more equitable place. In fact, we’re betting on it.”
Sightsavers CEO Dr Caroline Harper, responding to the letter, said: “As Bill and Melinda Gates have highlighted, there is a real opportunity in the coming years to end some of the debilitating and devastating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that affect over one billion people living in poverty. What is now needed to accelerate progress on elephantiasis, river blindness and blinding trachoma (and win Gates his bet) is for these and the other NTDs to be included within the new set of development goals being finalised this year.
“Living in poverty is often the main reason communities are at risk of these diseases, and in turn NTDs themselves cause poverty. By ensuring they are at the centre of global efforts to combat poverty over the next 15 years, both adults and children will be given the opportunity to live healthy and productive lives, no matter where they live.”
Since 2012, Sightsavers has been using smartphones to collect high-quality data, so that countries can effectively map the disease and focus their elimination efforts.
Sightsavers’ Simon Bush has received a lifetime achievement award for his work on river blindness, and has been named president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.