STATISTICS released at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali, Rwanda, by Erasmus University show that sub-Saharan Africa could save $52 billion (purchasing power parity) by 2030 if the region meets the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s 2020 control and elimination targets for the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
NTDs are a diverse group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases that are particularly prevalent in areas with limited access to safe water, proper sanitation and adequate medical services. Sub-Saharan Africa bears over 40% of the global burden of NTDs. The five most common, accounting for 90% of the region’s burden, NTDs in sub-Saharan Africa are:
Lymphatic filariasis (LF or elephantiasis) is a parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes that affects the lymph nodes and often causes enlargement of body parts, such as the limbs and genitals.
Onchocerciasis (river blindness) is a parasitic worm infection, transmitted through the bites of infected black flies, that causes massive damage to skin and eyes.
Schistosomiasis (bilharzia) is a parasitic disease carried by fresh water snails that can cause major damage to the urinary and digestive tracts.
Soil-transmitted helminths (STH or intestinal worms) are intestinal infections caused by parasitic worms. They are most common in children and can cause serious physical, nutritional and cognitive impairments. Intestinal worms are the most common NTD worldwide.
Trachoma is a contagious bacterial eye infection that can lead to inflammation and the development of scar tissue on the eyes. It is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.
Meeting the WHO goals could also help the region gain the equivalent of 100 million life-years that would otherwise be lost to ill health, disability and early death arising from these diseases.
“NTD control efforts offer a return on investment unparalleled in global health,” said Ellen Agler, Chief Executive Officer of the END Fund, a private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending the five most common NTDs. “Ending these debilitating diseases will help reduce poverty at all levels, from families and communities to whole nations.”
The impact of NTDs on both health and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa is massive. Each year, these diseases cause disabilities and disfigurements for millions of African citizens. They also increase absenteeism in schools and dramatically reduce labor productivity, ultimately perpetuating cycles of poverty.
“I have seen the devastating effects of NTDs first hand in my community,” said Queen Sylvia of Buganda, a kingdom in Uganda, who delivered remarks at the launch of the statistics. “We cannot continue to let people across Africa suffer from these diseases of poverty when simple solutions exist. It is holding our people and our countries back. We can and we must do more.”
Low cost interventions
The five most common NTDs in sub-Saharan Africa can effectively be prevented and treated using low-cost, easy-to-administer interventions, such as preventive chemotherapy (PC) treatments through mass drug administration (MDA) in affected communities.
Such interventions are extremely cost effective due to a number of factors, including drug donations (valued at $4 billion annually); the scale of national programs; the integration of drug delivery with other health initiatives; the use of volunteers and teachers for distribution; and the massive impact of NTD control on economic productivity and educational outcomes. Pharmaceutical interventions work alongside other prevention strategies, including the promotion of safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
In recent years, countries across sub-Saharan Africa have made tremendous progress toward ending NTDs. Donors, development partners and national governments have made unprecedented commitments to these diseases, including through the landmark London Declaration on NTDs, launched by a coalition of partners in January 2012, and the Addis Ababa NTD Commitment, signed by 24 African health ministers in December 2014 declaring increased leadership and budgetary contributions.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, specifically reference putting an end to NTDs by 2030.
Despite this progress, a funding gap remains to distribute medicines to the millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa who still lack access.