Neglected tropical diseases affect more than a billion people around the world and can cause severe and lifelong impairment.
Yet they can be prevented, treated and, in many cases, eliminated.
The recipe to eliminate neglected tropical diseases brings together a variety of ingredients: the communities, partners, health workers, donors and governments who are needed to banish NTDs.
When all of these are combined, we can create a society free from the burden of NTDs where communities can thrive.
Follow our recipe below to learn how together we can beat NTDs.
To beat neglected tropical diseases, governments need to first understand which communities are at risk. By carrying out comprehensive surveys, governments and their partners can identify the geographical areas where a disease is present, then treat people living in those areas.
It’s also important for these surveys to follow a standardised format, so this vital data can be shared between districts, regions and countries.
The most effective way to eliminate most NTDs is by distributing preventative medicine to people at risk. We know it takes a global village to eliminate a disease, and thanks to partners, donors and pharmaceutical companies who donate treatments to fight NTDs, we are able to reach those most at risk.
By putting local communities at the centre of these efforts, we can ensure medication reaches the right people, and that those people feel comfortable accepting treatment.
Distributing medication is an important way to eliminate a disease. However, for people who are already living with NTDs, it’s also important to manage the symptoms and effects of these diseases.
There are many ways to tackle the burden of disease, including surgery and training to manage the symptoms of infection. This can help to improve people’s wellbeing, reduce the stigma they may face because of their condition, and lessen the overall burden on health systems.
NTD programmes should be supported by high-quality research. This can help organisations to find new solutions and add to global knowledge about eliminating NTDs.
Global research is being carried out in areas including medication, vector control, data collection and use, and how to include remote populations in treatment programmes.
The poorest and most marginalised people in society are often most at risk of contracting an NTD. For this reason, programmes to treat the diseases must focus on ensuring no one is left out.
This could involve helping the elderly and people with disabilities to access medical care, analysing data to find out whether communities are missing out on treatment, and going the extra mile to find and treat people in remote areas.
To beat NTDs we must work in partnership, and one key example is the collaboration between the NTD sector and the water, sanitation and health (WASH) sector. Many NTDs spread more easily in areas where there isn’t enough access to water and sanitation, so improving WASH infrastructure can have a big impact in the fight against disease. By combining data from these sectors, governments and partners can learn where investment is needed.
Many WASH initiatives are underpinned by social behaviour change, which aims to improve people’s health by influencing their knowledge, attitudes and social norms. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for the WASH approach, as customs and practices are culturally unique so the method needs to be tailored to each area.
As a country gets closer to eliminating an NTD, it will need to invest in further surveys. These surveys can show whether drug treatment programmes have reduced the prevalence of disease to a level where mass treatments can stop, and individual cases can be managed by the country’s primary health system.
Once this has been established, countries can apply to the World Health Organization (WHO), for official validation or verification that they have eliminated an NTD.
Most countries have a national health information system that acts as a central hub for data about health services. However, data from NTD programmes is not always included, meaning the programmes are less visible and may miss out on government funding.
To eliminate these diseases, governments need to make sure they are collecting data about treatment programmes and the prevalence of disease, and that they have the resources and processes in place to act on the data.
Before announcing that a disease has been eliminated as a public health problem, a government must prove that its health system is equipped to manage any remaining cases.
To work properly, the system needs trained staff, solid infrastructure, a reliable supply of medicine and equipment, and adequate funding. Services need to be available close to where people live, and must be accessible for all.
This step, which everyone is aiming for, represents a massive achievement for governments and their partners. However, this is not the end: countries will need to maintain the structures for carrying out surveillance surveys to ensure that the disease does not resurface. Governments will also need to continue investing in health infrastructure and staff training to make sure that when people do catch NTDs, the health system is able to treat them.
Sightsavers has supported both Ghana and The Gambia in their efforts to eliminate trachoma. Balla Musa Joof, who was Sightsavers’ country director for The Gambia during the trachoma elimination programme, said: “After decades of hard work, our children can grow up without fear of this disease, and our government can direct resources toward tackling other health issues.”