Neglected Tropical Diseases need urgent attention too

The buck doesn't stop at Covid-19. On World NTD Day, we need to help the most stricken communities

Prisca Dali,14, who was diagnosed with Human African Trypanosomiasis after being ill for 4 years, has her blood drawn during an Human African Trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, screening in the village of Paanenefla near Sinfra, Ivory Coast on October 11, 2019. - Sleeping sickness, a parasitic infection that once caused thousands of deaths annually in sub-Saharan Africa, is nearing elimination, but scientists warn affected countries must not drop their guard.
The disease, transmitted to humans by the Tsetse fly was once the bane of more than 30 countries who suffered devastating epidemics over the past century. (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP)

With the global death toll now over 2.2 million, Covid-19 has a grip on our lives. However, other deadly infections still urgently require the world's attention – and subsequent action.

Neglected Tropical Diseases or NTDs are a group of ailments found in parts of some developing countries that affect more than 1 billion people annually. In some regions of Asia, Africa and South America, the range of conditions that make up NTDs include river blindness, elephantiasis and snail fever.

Saturday was a day dedicated to talking about the threat, bringing together more than 300 partner organisations from 55 countries to spur efforts to end NTDs. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, highlighted the importance of this fight on the first World NTD Day, raising awareness of such diseases so that we can help defeat them in the near future.

These diseases are often preventable and occur in low-income communities that are afflicted with several problems, from a lack of clean water and sanitation to inadequate health care.

For its part, the UAE has supported the eradication of these diseases and for decades has financially assisted the most stricken nations in this endeavour. The UAE's commitment to beating disease goes back more than 30 years. Since 1986, the US-based Carter Centre pioneered the campaign to wipe out dracunculiasis, known as Guinea worm disease. Back in 1990, Founding Father Sheikh Zayed contributed $5.8 million to its efforts and helped prevent an estimated 80 million cases of the disease. Further to this cause of ending preventable diseases, Reaching the Last Mile, a 10-year, $100m initiative was established in 2017 by Sheikh Mohamed, along with other supporters such as Bill and Melinda Gates and the UK. There are clear signs of hope, such as with Guinea worm disease – there were a mere 28 cases reported last year globally. That compares to 3.5 million in 1986. Such examples show us what can be achieved and why we must keep going until the overall goals are achieved.

But despite efforts to conquer NTDs, last year the Covid-19 pandemic unsurprisingly derailed some of the momentum, given how it monopolised health care resources and continues to draw almost all our focus. The onus is now on the world's most privileged stakeholders to help renew these commitments and tackle these preventable ills. The World Health Organisation this week unveiled a plan to tackle 20 diseases by 2030. The aim is for a minimum of 100 countries to have eliminated at least one NTD.

With co-ordinated efforts and the tenacity to defeat these diseases, future generations stand a chance in life and don't have to be stricken by these conditions. Clean water, sanitation, hygiene and quality health services are not only bare minimum requirements for human sustenance, they also go a long way to counter NTDs.

Fortunately, many of the most common NTDs can be treated for less than $0.50 per person. We should seize the opportunity to eradicate these diseases that devastate families, set back generations, and rob societies of health and progress. If we start by spreading awareness, we help the cause.