About two million children die every year from diseases that are preventable, a major conference on global health in Abu Dhabi was told on Wednesday,
“Over one and half billion people are affected by neglected tropical diseases around the world, Dr Maha Barakat, a member of the Role Back Malaria Partnership Board, told the opening of the Reaching the Last Mile forum.
“It is our firm belief that no-one should needlessly suffer or die from a preventable disease,” Dr Barakat said.
The summit, which is under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is looking at the eradication of two diseases, and methods of tackling others.
Two of the most pressing problems are malaria, which affects 212 million people in 91 countries and the 18 million people in 36 countries with river blindness.
“Although the above numbers seems overwhelming and insurmountable we have been given hope by two diseases,” said Dr Barakat.
She pointed to Guinea worm, a parasite carried in water, which one afflicted over three and half million people in 21 countries in the 1980s, but is down to 26 cases in two countries, according to latest figures.
And while there were hundreds of thousands of cases of polio, 30 years ago, there have only been 14 infections in two countries in 2017.
“The biggest hope came in 1980 when after decades of efforts and resources, the world successfully eradicated smallpox,” Dr Barakat said,
“This is the first time any disease has been eradicated, We hope then next two diseases in line for eradication are Guinea worm and polio.”
Ridding the world of these diseases will bring massive health, social and economic benefits, she added, with the knowledge and infrastructure created able to be used for other diseases and better hygiene.
If UN health targets are met by 2013, "it is estimated there will be productivity gain of around $565 billion dollars".
"If we stop our efforts for specific diseases, a number of them will rise again", she said.
“With polio, the 14 cases I just mentioned in two countries will become 200,000 cases every year, all over the world.”
Dr Barakat also praised the role of the UAE in combatting preventable diseases, and in particular the role of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founding President of the UAE and his son, Sheikh Mohammed.
“Zayed bin Sultan was a life long supporter of humanitarian causes which even predated the founding of the UAE in 1971,” she said.
In 1990, Sheikh Zayed was an early contributor to a fund to fight Guinea worm disease, set up by former US President Jimmy Carter, donating nearly $6 million to his Carter Foundation.
Sheikh Mohammed has personally donated $250 million since 2010 to support global heath campaigns against malaria and polio and to promote vaccinations.
“By supporting the above, the UAE was able to maintain momentum, rally donors and work closely with global partners and multilateral initiative to increase impact,” Dr Barakat said.
Over 200 global health workers, government officials and other organisations are represented at Reaching the Last Mile, with the conference also due to hear from Bill Gates, who has come to Abu Dhabi in person.